At the maternity ward of Doğum government hospital in the Turkish state of Gaziantep, 17-year-old Nour, a Syrian refugee, is ready to give birth. She and her husband are brimming with joy. The baby will perhaps help them put the bitter past behind, the displacement, the long journeys away from their war-torn Syria, and the three years of fending for themselves as refugees here in Gaziantep.
The operation went well. But then, after Nour recovered from childbirth, something unexpected happened. The hospital administration refused to let Nour and her husband take the baby home. They discovered that Nour had used a fake ID to hide the fact that she was under the marriage age in Turkey, which is 18. The hospital kept the newborn, and immediately turned Nour to the court.
An underage marriage is considered a crime of “sexual exploitation,” punishable with up to 15 years in prison, under articles 103, 104 and 105 of the Turkish penal code. The law applies to Turkish and foreign minors alike, including Syrian refugees. But there is a general lack of knowledge among Syrian girls of the legal consequences, and the awareness efforts of civil organizations have been so inadequate that such marriages continue to take place in large numbers.
The World Health Organization estimates at 16 million the number of girls between the ages of 15-19, and one million girls under the age of 15, who give birth each year worldwide. In Syria alone, out of 1000 teenage girls, 39 are pregnant each year.
Nour is one of many Syrian refugees living in Turkey who were married before 18. When the Turkish authorities find out about such marriages, the girl’s father and husband, if the latter is over 18, are liable to legal action, according to Haidar Houri, a lawyer who closely follows this issue in Turkey.
Ghazwan Kronfol is the head of the Syrian Lawyers Aggregation in Turkey, an association that provides legal assistance to Syrian refugees in Turkish courts. He says that in Syria, as in Turkey, the legal age is 18. Before that, a person is considered a minor and does not have legal capacity, according to article 85 of the Syrian personal status law: “And in Turkey’s child protection law, an underage marriage is a crime of sexual assault on a minor. Hospitals turn underaged pregnant girls to prosecutors, who in turn file a lawsuit, and then arrest the father and husband, and sometimes the girl herself.”
DNA Test for the Baby
After Nour was dismissed from the hospital, the administration ran a DNA test on the baby to prove her motherhood. “I first hired a Syrian attorney to follow up on the DNA results, but he couldn’t. So I hired a Turkish lawyer instead, and now, I am waiting for the test results, so that I would be allowed to take my baby home. They let me visit him, I go to see him once every 3 days, because the hospital is far from where I live. I can’t go every day.”
At the time of this interview, in January 2019, nine weeks have passed since Nour had given birth to her baby, and the situation is still the same. She is optimistic, though. Her lawyer promised to file a lawsuit against the hospital should they refuse to return her baby. And she knows a girl who got her baby back after 7 months.
The Ministry of Health pays for the DNA test, but the lawyer’s fees, around 7000 TL (USD $1200), are on the family. Nour had to borrow money.
A Love Story
Nour lied about her name and age out of fear, but she now regrets it. She said she married her cousin (20 years old) after they fell in love, and they are now living with his family, while Nour’s family lives in the province of Adana in the south.
Nour says that it’s hard not being able to hold her baby, “but what can I do? I am hoping that I will get him back after a few days. The hospital takes good care of the baby, and every time I go to visit him I find him clean and well-fed. I couldn’t breastfeed him, because I had to be to court every day after the birth.”
In the Courtroom
A similar story happened to Marwa, another refugee who hails from the famous district of al-Maidan in Damascus. She is 17, and she got married to her cousin 2 years ago, when she was 15. Her marriage is not registered in Turkey. She had a girl, who is now a year old: “I had my baby in Bağcılar hospital in Istanbul. No questions were asked during my stay at the hospital. But a year later, the police contacted me, so I went in for interrogation. They examined my files and set a court date for me.”
In the Istanbul courtroom, there was a translator, a psychologist, a judge and a scribe: “They asked me many personal questions, like whether I regretted getting married, or if I loved my husband. Was I forced into this marriage? Did I have a job? Because a married woman my age is not allowed to work, just as she is not allowed to get pregnant.”
Marwa cannot fathom what her mistake was. Marriage at her age is normal in Syria. She even knows of many girls who got married as soon as they reached puberty, at 12 and 13 years old: “Many of my friends here face the same problem. They didn’t go to prison, but they went through lengthy court hearings, and paid large sums of money ranging from 5000 to 2000 Turkish liras (USD $914 to USD $3660) in lawyer fees, transportation and other expenses, before their innocence was declared.”
But Marwa is mostly afraid for her husband who is facing charges for marrying a minor and impregnating her. “I love him very much,” she says. “If he is sentenced to jail, we may have to go back to Syria, even though he risks being enlisted for compulsory military service.”
The Extent of the Phenomenon
Due to lack of awareness of possible psychological damages on wives and children, underage marriage is ubiquitous amongst Syrians in Turkey and European asylum countries. The media is trying to remedy that by focusing more and more on the phenomenon.
A report published on 15 March, 2018, by al-Arabi al-Jadeed website, titled “Underaged Mothers in Turkey,” reveals that one hospital recorded 115 underaged pregnant girls, in the first 5 months of that year, without notifying the police. 39 of those girls were Syrian, the others Turkish. Among them, 38 were under 15 years of age.
That led Turkish authorities to open two investigations, one into the hospital staff’s neglect, the second into child exploitation. The general prosecution interrogated 20 of the accused and 50 minors in the presence of a psychologist. The investigations showed that all the pregnant minors lived in Istanbul, which hosts a large number of immigrants from the east and southeast of Turkey.
In the same context, in Sweden, which hosts around 110,000 Syrian refugees, making it the second-largest foreign community in the country, 132 underage marriages were discovered, according to UNHCR 2016 statistics. This urged the Swedish tax authorities to tighten the rules for evaluating and registering child marriage cases, regardless of whether other departments endorse such marriages.
As for Germany, which hosts about 700,000 Syrian refugees, the 3rd largest foreign community in the country, 1475 minor girls were registered as married, 361 of those are under 14 years of age, according to the 2018 federal census. The Ministry of Justice then drafted a law that prevents official recognition of marriages where any of the spouses is under 18.
When 15-year-old Israa decided to go to a public hospital in the Turkish province of Kilis to have her first baby, the hospital refused her admittance. Private hospitals turned her away, too. She recounts how “the doctor screamed at me and said, ‘You’re too young, and the baby is too small. There is a very high risk one of you may die. I can’t take responsibility for that.” Israa was in labor when that happened. “The pain was unbearable. The baby was about to come out of me. We didn’t know where to go. God then sent us a certified midwife who agreed to help us, on the condition that she be exempted from any liability should something happen to the baby or me. We had no choice but to accept”.
Dr. Suat Erşahin, head of the Obstetrics Department at Medical Park Hospital in Istanbul says that “premature marriage has a very bad effect on the health of the mother and the child. Symptoms like nausea and anemia appear in the early stages of pregnancy, and the risk of abortion and preterm labor is very high. Hormonal imbalance, or the inadequacy of the uterus for pregnancy, may cause contractions that may in turn lead to hemorrhage, inducing preterm labor. The young girl is also at risk of high blood pressure, which may cause kidney failure, hemorrhage, or spasms, and increased risk of cesarean sections.” The doctor continues that premature pregnancy “raises the risk of bone deformation in the spine and pelvis, and can affect the health of the fetus, causing it to die in his mother’s womb due to poor blood circulation”. Preterm births may cause the failure of the baby’s respiratory system due to incomplete growth of the lungs, in addition to digestive problems and delayed physical and mental development and an increased risk of cerebral palsy and hearing disabilities, according to Erşahin.
A minor whose marriage is discovered by the authorities may find herself in one of two situations: she may either be sent to a minors’ home, or back to her parents’…
Repeating the Same Mistake
The physical pain that Israa went through during her first delivery did not deter her from getting pregnant a second time. She was only 16 when she entered the hospital again, and unaware that her marriage would now be discovered: “At Şehitkamil public hospital, they had no choice but to admit me because the baby was about to come out. I was taken to labor quickly. After I delivered, they asked for my paperwork. And then the police came immediately and began to interrogate me, while my newborn was in the incubator. They took my fingerprints and forced me to stay at the hospital for 12 days.” In the end, Israa was allowed to leave with her baby: “I felt like a prisoner who was set free. I vowed never to get pregnant again before I’m 20.”
Social Media Market
Some specialized groups have created discussion platforms on social media centering around premature marriage and refugee problems in general. But these pages soon became a place for matchmaking. Mothers put in their sons’ statistics– age, height, place of residence– and wait for bride offers. I contacted some of the girls involved and met them. They spoke to me on condition of anonymity.
Samar says she got married when she was 14, and had her first baby when she was 15, at a private hospital in Istanbul, for she was aware that interrogations were taking place at governmental hospitals. But when she went later to get her son vaccinated, the center staff asked questions and figured out her age. They went ahead and called the police who arrested her father. Her husband, who is also wanted, is on the run.
Sociologist Adel Hanif Oglu documented 11 cases of premature marriage in 2012 and 2013, 9 of which failed. He says, “Syrian families are really secretive about such marriages. Even those who became Turkish citizens and are aware of the law, still approve the marriage of their underaged girls.”
Statistics and Official Numbers
- 405,521 Syrian children were born in Turkey as of November 2018.
Source: Süleyman Soylu, Turkish minister of interior (February, 2019.)
- Every day, 400 Syrian children are born in Turkey. Urfa province hosts the highest number of Syrian newborns. 50-55 new births occur in that province.
Source: Muhammad Murad Erdogan, head of immigration research center, (October, 2018)
- More than half a million Syrian children who were born in Turkey within the past 4 years, have no legal status.
- The current number of Syrians registered under temporary protection is about 3,500,000.
Source: Turkish Department of Immigration and Asylum, and the Supervisory Authority, (August, 2018.)
Endless Psychological Disorders
Premature marriage problems are not limited to the negative health effects on the mother. They also entail severe psychological damage on her and the child. Psychologist Omneya Turk says that a premature marriage “deprives the girl of her parents’ loving care and her right to choose a suitable husband, and robs her of her childhood. The newlywed is probably unaware of the responsibility a marriage demands. Her immaturity can lead to sexual problems as well, and could end up ruining the marriage.”
Moreover, having an underaged mother would negatively affect the children. According to Turk, having been deprived of education herself, the mother would not be able to oversee the education of her children. She is also in a place that does not allow her to make appropriate decisions. And when she grows up, she is likely to discover that she married the wrong guy, not the one she wants to spend the rest of her life with. Often, she feels as though she has been used as a commodity.”
In Islam, an age of competence for marriage is a legal requirement in a marriage contract. Professor Muhammad Nader from the Turkish University of Krabuk, says that if a girl is married against her will, the contract is nullified by most Islamic scholars.
According to Nader, an underaged girl may not be able to “evaluate whether or not her husband is suitable for her. It remains, however, her right to have a say.” Scholars agree that women should not be forced to forsake this fundamental right that they have: “Some scholars consider it a necessary condition for marriage. When it comes to financial matters, Islam gives a minor rights to independent ownership, and a guardian should only use the minor’s possessions for her own benefit. In matters of marriage, seeing to the best interest of the bride is even more important.”
Some Solutions for the Problem
When such a widespread phenomenon is not met with real measures to mitigate its effects, the future seems uncertain.
Facing the rigid Turkish law, Marwa and Nour will keep waiting for the court verdict, dreading their future.
Syrian attorney Haidar Houry advises families not to marry their daughters off before the age of 18, to avoid negative repercussions. “Numerous cases have been prosecuted in Turkey,” he added.
A minor whose marriage is discovered by the authorities may find herself in one of two situations: she may either be sent to a minors’ home, or back to her parents’ who are asked to sign a written consent not to send their girl back to the husband.
On the other hand, Houri advises Syrian men who are married to underaged girls in Turkey to find a way to register their marriages in Syria. The marriage being legal in their country of origin would ensure protection from punishment.”
This report was prepared with the support of SIRAJ (Syrian Investigative Reporting for Accountability Journalism), under the supervision of Muhammad Bassiki, within the framework of Syria in Depth project, in collaboration with the Guardian Foundation and IMS.