With Refugee Influx, Germany Struggles To Outlaw Child Marriage

Germany suddenly faces hundreds of young girls who have disappeared from schools because their parents have found husbands for them. Lawmakers appear powerless to face the new phenomenon of child brides brought by the arrival of immigrants.

Refugee girl playing in a Berlin school
Refugee girl playing in a Berlin school
Hannelore Crolly, Anette Dowideit and Freia Peters

BERLIN â€" Pinar, a 15-year-old German girl of Iraqi descent, ran to a woman’s shelter when her father tried to force her to marry a 36-year-old man who works for an oil company in Iraq.

Pinar, which is not her real name, had lived in Germany since the age of two. Her mother died of cancer and her father was strict, making Pinar do most of the housework and never letting her go out.

When Pinar’s father told her of her upcoming nuptials, she fled to a women’s shelter, which then transferred her to foster parents in Netherlands. She’s now hiding in a Dutch town where she still can’t go to school and has no friends.

Germany’s legal institutions are struggling to grasp the problems that migration causes. The more migrants arrive in Germany, the more often local authorities and courts have to deal with cases that they’ve never encountered before. They now face underage girls forced into marriages who have stopped going to school, either because they have to take over house chores from their mother-in-law or move country.

No woman should ever be married against her will, and that’s especially true for girls, says Terre de Femmes, a nonprofit women’s rights organization.

Although victims can find help and protection at the youth affairs department or an advisory center, not every teenager is that self-sufficient. Many young immigrant girls are also watched closely by their family and may not even be able to speak German properly. Is the state then able to protect women’s right to self-determination in these circumstances?

Arranged marriages are criminal in Germany but paragraph 237 of the country’s penal code does not include religious marriages â€" the kind Pinar was almost subjected to. Under German law, religious marriages are not legally recognized, and therefore cannot be penalized.

The German association of female lawyers has demanded that the law should now include such marriages, but that would, in turn, mean that such marriages would have a legal bearing.

Already, Sharia, or Islamic, law is coming to Germany through child brides who were married abroad. Many are refugees who’ve arrived from war-torn countries.

In nearly half of all marriages among Syrians in refugee camps, at least one spouse is a minor, according to SOS Children’s Villages, an NGO. This figure used to be 13% prior to the war. Parents believe that their daughter’s marriage, often to a considerably older man would secure her financial and physical well-being, protecting her from rape and safeguarding her so-called honor.

These marriages now pose a problem to the German legal system. If a marriage took place in the refugee’s home country, the local authorities can hardly claim that religious marriages in Germany do not exist. This leads to a fundamental problem: Is safeguarding family rights more important than children’s rights?

Drawings by Syrian refugee children â€" Photo: DFID - UK DID

Legal experts doubt that courts of law and local authorities are equipped to deal with these questions. “The authorities seem to be increasingly powerless to do anything in the cases that we are witnessing at the moment,” says Islam expert and lawyer Mathias Rohe, who is in charge of the center for Islam and law in Europe at the University of Erlangen.

Love, not always

This issue was recently highlighted in the case of a young Syrian couple, in which the girl was aged 14 and the man 20 when they got married in Syria. They fled to Europe and were separated by the authorities when they got to Germany. The husband sued the local court in Bamberg to be allowed to live with his wife. Both stressed that they loved each other and were legally married. The husband’s motion was sustained. The court, in this case, adhered to the common custom of accepting situations that were legally created in a foreign country if they do not clearly violate German public order, such as would be the case with polygamous marriages.

But it is not the number of known cases that should worry us but the number of unreported cases. We can only guess what is going on behind closed doors and in mosques. A census created five years ago by the Ministry of Family Affairs provides a vague indication as to how high the number of unreported cases may be. The ministry asked advisory centers to report how many people had come to them for support and advise with regard to imminent or already existing arranged marriages. Among the 3,443 people who sought advise on the matter, one-third were underage. The youngest girl to seek advice was 9 years old.

Lawmakers are now seeking a change in legislation through a joint initiative that would not recognize marriages in which the girls are younger than 16.

“The willingness to get married among young women is rarely based on love,” says Thomas Kutschaty, the minister for justice in North Rhine-Westphalia state, who, along with his Bavarian counterpart, Winfried Bausback, launched the initiative.

Kutschaty wants to prevent child brides especially because older men often take advantage of the girl and her family. “This will leave scars that never heal,” he says.

The German parliament has also addressed the topic. One lawmaker, Thomas Oppermann, told Die Welt newspaper that “the protection of children has to be our top priority. And the same has to apply to underage refugees.” No one, especially children, should ever be forced into marriage, he says.

“We have to provide clear guidelines as to when a marriage that has taken place abroad is in accordance with our values and will be recognized in Germany,” says Kutschaty.

Heiko Maas, the federal justice minister, has announced that he will start a workshop to address the topic on Sept. 5.

Meanwhile, Pinar, who is now 16, is waiting patiently in Netherlands and longs for her childhood. “Germany is my home, I can barely remember Iraq,” she says.

If everything goes well, Pinar will get a spot in a communal residence in Germany, and return to class with her eye on obtaining her high school diploma. For the future, she says she wants to be a lawyer in order to help other girls in her position.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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