Amid the substantial increase in child marriage as a negative coping strategy to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, European nations are scrambling to find sustainable response to the influx of child brides. Recent cases involving de-facto or de-jure recognition of child marriage in Member States that ban such unions have not only triggered concern on the lack of protective measures for child brides, but also demonstrated that addressing child marriage is not at all a straightforward endeavor.
Denmark recently reversed its policy that prohibited child brides from living with their husbands, explaining how some girls threatened with self-harm upon separation from partners and arguing the separation could be seen as a violation of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as Art. 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which guarantees the right to private and family life.
While mirroring the Danish court’s concern on inflicting trauma upon underage girls by separating them from their husbands, Swedish and Norwegian authorities in most cases continue to separate child brides, due to the very real risk of child abuse.
It is very unfortunate that the legally binding provisions of the Istanbul Convention prohibit forced marriage under Article 37, but make no reference to child marriage. What is more, there are no clear European policies dealing with separating adult men from their child brides, while they are seeking asylum. Under these circumstances, it appears extremely important that authorities make young migrants aware of their rights and especially stress the principles of gender equality and child welfare, as they represent two key pillars of European society.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a number of Muslim communities in Europe, citing cultural and religious freedoms, have been criticizing measures targeting child marriage. Nonetheless, taking into account that children’s wellbeing is at stake, one has to concur with Reiner Wendt, head of German police union, who stated that we cannot allow religious and cultural justifications to obscure the fact that older men are abusing young girls. Monika Mitchell of Terre des Femmes, voiced an additional concern, namely that it was more than problematic to allow husbands to serve simultaneously as legal guardians of their child brides.
The EU clearly remains committed to punish hate crimes, while advocating for more tolerance, however children’s wellbeing should always come before religious freedom. Netherlands seems to agree, as it is decisively working on closing loopholes in their asylum laws, citing worries of inadvertently encouraging pedophilia under current policies.
Germany on the other hand, has witnessed growing protests upon an appeal’s court’s shortsighted ruling that recognized a marriage between a fifteen-year-old girl and her twenty-one-year old cousin earlier this year, based on its validity under Sharia law. Upon debating on cultural freedoms, violence against girls and women and the dangers of the development of a parallel justice system in Germany, policymakers have drafted measures that are going to decide marriage maturity solely according to German law.
It seems clear that until a coherent framework on child marriage has been put in place, it is up to social workers, schools, police and grassroots organizations to continue providing child brides with support and opportunities, assisting them toward an autonomous life. Considering the large potential of young migrants for integration, it is pivotal that they have a safe platform to voice opinions, process trauma and work toward healing.
In addition, one cannot stress enough the importance of language learning and acquiring a solid education, as they represent a key aspect in lowering rates of child marriage and violence against girls and women. Schools should therefore consider introducing books on and by refugees, hosting multiculturalism events and inviting former refugees to speak in classrooms, in order to empower young girls, provide an optimistic perspective on life and encourage trust-building, while the class works toward a community of tolerance and empathy.
The EU is already actively involved in mostly short-term responses to underage marriages, such as providing support to victims through help-lines, but considering the rapidly changing society and growing prevalence of child marriage, our community urgently needs to go beyond that. To paraphrase one of the conclusions of this year’s Global Summit on Refugees and Migrants: We need deeds, not words.