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When girls become wives to escape war

Shtrauchler, Nastassja / groOctober 26, 2015

Forced marriages and child brides may sound far-fetched in Europe. A true story from the Netherlands dispels this notion. Women's aid organizations expect that Germany will soon be confronted with these issues.

Symbolbild Frau mit Kopftuch
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

On the photo the Dutch police is using to find her, Fatema wears a chic, leopard-print headscarf. She gazes seriously and defiantly at the camera, just like any other girl at her age. But Fatema is not a normal teenager. The 14-year-old is married and had her first child roughly two months ago.

Ever since August 31, the young Syrian woman and her husband, ten years her senior, have dropped off the authorities' radar. The couple arrived in the Netherlands via Germany this summer and was housed in the refugee reception center in Ter Apel. Soon thereafter, Fatema did not appear for an appointment at the hospital. Dutch authorities believe that she has already been taken out of the country.

Niederlande Fatema Alkasem Vermisster Flüchtlinge
Fatema went missing at the end of AugustImage: Polizei Niederlande

The child bride case in the heart of Europe has caused a stir. Dutch politician Attje Kuiken reacted by tweeting an appeal to put a stop to the practice as she finds it inacceptable. Children must be allowed to be children, she said.

When Fatema's story went public, people with foreign citizenship in the Netherlands were still allowed to have their marriage recognized, even to a 16-year-old, if the marriage had officially been registered in their home country. In the meantime, Dutch parliament is drafting legislation to raise the legal age to recognize such marriages to 18. The law is expected to be passed in December. The Dutch minister of immigration, Klaus Dijkhoff, told the BBC in an interview that such relationships would no longer be recognized in the future. "If you are a man with an under-age wife, then you will not be able to bring her here," he said.

Defenseless without a family and a husband

Even though there are no official figures at the moment, Germany is also wondering whether the child brides will become an issue in the future. According to the Federal Office of Migration and Refugees (BAMF), no cases have yet been reported but women's rights organizations like "Terre des Femmes" anticipate the arrival of child brides in the future. The German general manager of "Terre des Femmes", Christa Stolle, says that underage-wives will go to Germany in the context of the family reunification scheme for asylum seekers who are allowed to reside in the country.

Stolle recently visited Turkey and was able to take stock of the situation there. She said that several girls, aged 15 and 16, in refugee camps were waiting to join their husbands in Germany. Many already had one or two children and felt defenseless without a husband or family. Given the current situation, Christa believes that these girls should be allowed to go to Germany. "In Germany, we will have the task of giving them special care," she says. For example, they will be taught German and told that they do not need to stay in these marriages.

Claudia Söder from "Medica Mondiale," an aid organization for women, has a similar view, but also points out that one should not forget the dependency of young women on their husbands and in-laws. "We cannot simply expect that they will easily leave the husband," says Söder. In order to help them to do this, they must be offered advice and trust must be established. "We are not prepared for anything like this in Germany," she says. To avoid putting the young women in a precarious position, the activists always try to involve the family and explain to husbands the advantages of not being solely responsibility for supporting the family. Christa Stolle of "Terre des Femmes" wants to create conditions where girls can grow and develop their skills without violating the rules of their traditions.

Marriage as protection from sexual violence

One of the recurring topics is family honor. Many girls and women are expected to defend their honor: this is perceived to inlude entering into marriage as a virgin. But sexual assault and rape often occur in Syria's war zones. Claudia Söder from Medica Mondiale says that everyone there has had such experiences. Rape brings great shame to families, she says, as the honor of their daughter has been sullied. Marriage can solve the problem. "They hope that they will no longer be subjected to sexual violence," explains Söder, adding that families accept the fact that the girls are legally much too young. Age often does not matter. "People are not bothered and the state does not take action," says Christa Stolle. In dire situations, money plays a part, as families need the monetary dowry they receive for every eligible daughter. So the number of child brides has tripled in Syrian refugee camps in recent years.

The subject is unsettling and it seems remote from people's lives here, but there have been similar cases in Germany. Christa Stolle tells the story of a 16-year-old whose parents of Turkish origin wanted to marry her off. It is legally possible in Germany if special judicial authorization is granted but the parents had only planned a religious wedding, without the necessary documents. After the parents had taken the girl out of school and locked her up at home, the girl turned to the women's rights organization. That was five years ago. The girl is now 21 years old and lives in an unnamed place with a different name and has a job, according to Stolle: "She is now a confident young woman and very grateful to us."