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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 — 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 — 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?

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Drawings by Syrian refugee children — 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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