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For Young Refugees, Marriage Is a Form of Protection

More than 1,000 married children have migrated to Germany in the past year. Now, the country has a dilemma: protect the girls by separating or preserving these marriages.

av Meredith Hoffman
2016 09 28, 5:20am

Bas Gul, an Afghan woman who now lives in a shelter, became a child bride at age 11. Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Rima was only 13 when, last year, she married a 30-year-old man she'd only just met. It was her safest option: Alone in a refugee camp in Turkey, she'd been raped many times. So Ammar, 30, another Syrian in the camp, offered to wed and look after her, bringing her all the way to Germany to seek asylum.

When they arrived in Germany, however, authorities separated the newlyweds, declaring the union illegitimate since German law requires individuals to be 18 to marry, or 16 if they have parental consent. Rima now lives in a shelter for refugee girls, where she can receive daytime visits from Ammar, the only person she knew coming to Germany.

Child brides like Rima have flocked in record numbers to Germany since last year, when Prime Minister Angela Merkel opened the nation's doors to 1.1 million refugees. About 1,500 married minors have migrated to the country since 2015, Brigit Zeller, a representative of Germany's Youth Welfare Offices, told me.

The influx of young brides presents Germany with a dilemma: whether to protect the girls by separating or preserving these marriages. The girls—predominantly from Syria, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan—come from a wide range of unions. Some wed for protection, like Rima; others were forced to marry; some had arranged marriages in the tradition of their cultures; a small portion married out of love.

The child marriage debate has grown heated this summer, after Germany's current policy—of separating most minor marriages but considering each one individually—led several wedded refugee teens to remain with their husbands.

"The youth offices generally separated people who were supposedly married [if] the woman was under 18," Zeller told me, but explained that "the minor is always questioned without the supposed husband to find out how they feel about him and whether it was a forced marriage. If the girl and the man are very close, you have to take that into [account]. They might be the only people they could rely on during their flight."

This summer, Zeller said several couples where the bride was underage contested the youth office's decision to separate them in court—and the judges allowed them to stay together.

In one such contentious case, a regional court in Bavaria declared a 21-year-old Syrian man could live with his 14-year-old wife. The city of Aschaffenburg, where the couple lives, appealed the decision, which is currently being fought in federal court.

Now, German officials are pushing tighter laws to prohibit all marriages of minors who migrate to the country. Justice Minister Heiko Mass has set up a working group to create an official child marriage rule, which child rights advocates say is critical to stop the exploitation of young girls.

"We can never accept early marriages. They represent a human rights infringement and have devastating consequences for the girls." said Marion Brucker, the communications officer for Terre des Femmes, a nonprofit women's rights organization that advocates against issues including forced marriage. Brucker told me that underage wives were more likely to drop out of school than their peers and more likely to suffer domestic violence than wives 18 and older. "The girls are robbed of their chance to lead an economically independent life. The practice of early marriage puts the health of young girls at risk and perpetuates the subordinate role of women."

But some Islamic scholars warn the issue isn't so black-and-white.

Dr. Ulrike Freitag, director of the Center for Modern Oriental Studies in Berlin, which conducts social science research on the Middle East, told me all underage couples "should not be separated as a rule."

"I'd be careful not to forcibly separate people without knowing their desires. I think it's important that they get access to counsel rather than the government deciding from the start they need to be separated," Freitag told me, emphasizing that "you can't compare the case of a ten-year-old to the case of a 17-year-old."

She also noted that in the girls' native countries, young marriages are often the tradition, and said the increase of debate about child marriage coincided with debates about the burka and the headscarf.

"Most people who discuss this as they discuss the headscarf and the burkha as a means of oppression aren't concerned with women rights," said Freitag. "It's a matter of cultural superiority."

Germany's child brides debate follows that of the Netherlands, which discredited all marriages between minors earlier this year after receiving a similar influx of underage married refugees.

The Netherlands' law has caused an unexpected dilemma: Many young wives with husbands in the Netherlands remain stuck in the Middle East, according to Annelies Moors, the chair of Contemporary Muslim Societies for the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. That's because men have traditionally journeyed to Europe first and then petitioned for visas to bring their wives, but now wives under age 18 no longer qualify for visas.

"Those young brides whose husbands have fled to Europe and who are not allowed to join them may be in an extremely difficult and precarious position, as they may well be left behind in warlike conditions," Moors told me, arguing that the Netherlands should interview each girl as Germany does to figure out which marriages are forced and which the girls have chosen for themselves.

Birgit Hoffmann, the director of a shelter that holds all married refugee girls (including Rima), agreed that the cases can vary greatly, but insisted that minors' safest option is always separation from their husbands—even if they request to be reunited.

"Many of the girls are traumatized by violence and war, [have been] raped, abused, and beaten," Hoffmann told me. She currently cares for one 15-year-old Syrian girl who desperately wants to be with her 25-year-old husband, whom she wedded in an arranged marriage, and told me other girls have even run away to be with their spouses.

But on the opposite extreme, some youths have run away from their home countries to escape forced marriages. One 17-year-old Somalian girl in the shelter was married at age ten to a 55-year-old man, after having her clitoris removed so she could not enjoy sex. She was her husband's fourth wife.

"The law definitely needs to be changed here," said Hoffmann, adding that her youngest resident was age 11. "Child marriage should be forbidden."

Hoffmann declined to let me interview her residents since they were minors, but one Afghan woman I interviewed outside a refugee shelter in Berlin told me she indeed had no option but to wed at age 15. The woman, Mahdia (whose name has been changed to protect her identity), married a man five years her elder in the town of Baghlan at her grandfather's orders.

"My mother and father were killed by the Taliban when I was a child, because they were teachers at a public school, so to the Taliban they worked for the government," Mahdia, now 25, told me. "I lived with my grandfather, and he decided I should marry because my husband had money, a house, a car, and family."

Mahdia said she did not protest because "in Afghanistan, the girls do not choose—the girl belongs to the family." At least one-third of Afghan girls are married by age 18, UNICEF found in a report published this June.

Madhia moved in with her husband's parents, who forbid her from leaving the house, and had her first baby when she was 16. Eventually, Mahdia told me she grew close to her husband and fled with him and their two children to Germany last year.

"I wouldn't leave my husband because my husband is a good man," said Mahdia, who now enjoys the freedom of walking down the street whenever she likes. Her greatest hope, now, is for her nine-year-old daughter in Berlin.

"I want her to be successful," Mahdia said, "so she can decide if she marries."

Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter.

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