Child brides increase among Syrians in Turkey

Child marriage is a growing problem among the Syrian refugee population in Turkey, according to a National Geographic photo essay published last month.

In Turkey, the legal age of marriage is 18, or 17 with parental consent. But many Syrian girls are married off at younger ages in unofficial ceremonies that are an open secret in Turkey, said one the authors, Özge Sebzeci.

“One of the brides went to the hospital to give birth at 15 and was taken by the police to a safe house, but she didn’t speak Turkish. The police made her sign (a document) saying that she wouldn’t live with her husband until she was 18, but there is no way to police this. She goes to the station every week to say that she isn’t living with him even though she is.”

Some estimates suggest the rate of child marriage among Syrians has increased fourfold since the Syrian conflict began in 2011.

Families consent to early marriage for a variety of reasons. Marriage can ease the often parlous financial situation in which many Syrian refugees find themselves. Many families also believe early marriage protects their daughters’ honour from men who might take advantage of them.

One young bride, whose mother succumbed to pressure to marry off her daughter, told Sebzeci “If my father was alive he would have never given permission.”

The key to empowering these refugee families is education, Sebzeci said. “We have to think how we can help them adapt to the society.”

Along with the problem of child brides is the issue of child divorcees. “Divorce is easy because all the husband has to do is to say ‘I divorce you’ three times,” Sebzeci said of a religious law known as “triple talaq”. “The girls don't have the rights they would otherwise have, such as inheritance and alimony.”

The problem of sexual exploitation of minors came into focus in Turkey this January when a social worker notified a prosecutor’s office about an Istanbul hospital’s failure to report more than 100 instances of underage pregnancy, 39 of which involved Syrian nationals.

The Health and Family Ministries subsequently launched separate investigations into the situation.