by Fern Adams
In the UK we recognise that people officially become adults when they turn 18. We tend to view that anyone under this age should be cared for, looked after and protected. This idea, on the whole, is recognised across Europe. Childhood is seen as a right that should be safeguarded. This in large part is why the news of child brides entering countries in Western Europe as refugees has caused confusion over what the correct response in this situation is. On one hand, sovereignty of state, what is seen as culturally acceptable, and the public response has suggested that child brides should be taken into care, their marriages annulled, and anti-brainwashing programmes provided; any adults involved should be tried and imprisoned. This view seems to have been taken by a variety of NGOs and pressure groups and comments section of news sites also seem to lean heavily towards these ideas. On the other hand, what happens when divorce in these situations results in taboo that could affect these girls into the future? Not only may these marriages have been recognised as legal in the state that is being left, but also in some cases there are children as a result of these marriages to take into account.
While child marriage is not a new issue and takes place around the world, the conflict in Syria has drawn attention to this as child brides enter Europe as refugees, forcing states to adopt a response. The number of child marriages have increased since conflict in Syria began. The statistics as to how much varies, with Girls Not Brides stating 13% of Syrian girls under 18 are married, while Save the Children puts this figure at potentially being up to 25%. Most child-brides are over the age of fourteen, although reports describe some as young as eleven years old. While these marriages are not a new phenomenon culturally, there has been an increase since conflict began. At its extreme marriage has been used as a weapon of war, more commonly however marriages take place as families try to ensure that if anything happens their daughters will have a level of security, or it is hoped it will lead to a greater chance of success in migrating to safer states.
The reaction of the girls who find themselves in this situation varies, with some girls feeling forced into the situation against their will and without any say, while others want their host countries to recognise their marriage and view it as legal. The BBC recently reported on several cases of girls attempting suicide following being separated from their husbands and placed in foster care.
Governments have responded to the issue of child-brides inconsistently across Europe, and there is a lack of consensus on this topic. In Germany some marriages have been recognised and others not, there are a number of cases of couples who have been told that their marriage is illegal who have appealed the situation and are still awaiting answers. A working group has recently been set up to try and address this topic and to create legislation that can then be applied as to what is ethically, culturally, and legally right in this situation. The Netherlands initially recognised child-bride marriages of refugees but has recently moved to instead change this, while Denmark is doing the opposite and moving towards a more accepting approach.
From all of this no clear solution has emerged. Many questions come into play when trying to address the topic. Which state’s laws are recognised? Should each case be viewed on an individual basis? Do we need a single policy or universal legislation that is the same in all cases? How much does each person’s individual voice get taken into account? How do we ensure that an attempt to preserve childhood as a right does not just enforce Western ideas? Is childhood a right that can be reinstated?
If child-marriages are viewed as illegal, then the host country must to some extent play a role in addressing the resulting stigma that might come to those who were child-brides. Support will need to be given, including to children born from these unions. If these marriages are made legal, then what challenges does this pose to the sovereignty of host countries? Also, what happens if it emerges later that the marriage was not agreed upon by all parties?
There is clearly a lot more in question here than if we should just simply recognise child marriages or not. To be able to address this topic fully we need to be able to look holistically and critically at ideas of culture, ethics, and childhood and not just law.
Fern Adams is a student on the MA in the Anthropology of Development and Social Transformation at the University of Sussex.