Investigated by – Nesrine Alaa Aldin
Their many faces crowding the walls of the Justice Palace in Downtown Damascus. They come from near and far, and nobody knows what’s inside the colorful envelops except the hands they pass through.
In the crowds, you will see young girls, accompanied by their parents. They look lost, oblivious to what awaits them after visiting the court with family and lawyers to register their marriage contracts. Usually the bride is rewarded a visit to Al-Hamidiyyah market close to the Justice Palace, to have ice-cream at the famous Kadash. Afterwards, they face their destinies. Real happiness is absent, and instead there are questions and looks of surrender to what family wants. Afterwards, each becomes just a new incident in the child marriage phenomenon that became much more substantial in Syria during the war years, until one third of girls in the country became child brides, according to a study by the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research.
Sarah*, who works at a hairdresser shop in Al-Midan neighborhood, Damascus, fixes her eyes on the shop owner. She dreams of learning to be a professional hairdresser one day. Her work now includes cleaning the shop, handing the hairdresser her tools, and learning by watching. The girl who became a widow at the age of seventeen has only but one dream at the moment: to learn this trade in order to support herself and her baby from a marriage that didn’t last long.
Sarah regained her freedom after her husband died, only to find herself shackled by the shackles of society. Her father who got her married in 2014 to her cousin now have to come to the hairdresser’s shop by the end of each work day to take her home. People would start talking if they see the young widow walking alone.
Sarah dropped out of her school after her father decided to get her married to his nephew, who was 16 years her senior. She left Syria to Jordan when war started. She lived, imprisoned in a house, lamenting her lost freedom and her husband’s indifference to her needs, and beating her some times. He would leave to work and leave her a hostage with his mother who would hold her accountable to anything and everything that goes wrong. Things deteriorated when she had a baby girl, while the family wanted a baby boy. Six months after the baby was born, the husband died of a malignant disease.
Sarah returned with her child to Syria to live in her father’s house. More than one person proposed to her, but they all refused that have her child accompanying her, while her family refused to support her child. Her work at the hairdresser’s didn’t provide her with income that provides for all of her needs, but at least it gave her back the ability to dream to have a job, to support herself and her child.
Sarah’s marriage was concluded in a court. It was legally valid, although she was 14 years old.
Lawyer and activist Ietidal Muhsin says that Syrian Civil Status Code issued according to legislative order 59 dated 7-9-1953 states that the suitable age of marriage is 17 years for girls and 18 years for boys. The law, however, allows for girls as young as 13 and boys as young as 15 to get married, if their bodies are seen as fit for marriage, and if they have a real intention to build a family, based on the discretion of the judge.
If the judge has discretion to determine whether the body can handle marriage, Yasmine’s* experience proves that the agonies that come after this decision are larger and more complicated than the ability to take a sound decision by simply looking at the figure of the girl.
Yasmine, at 15, became the wife of a man in his mid-40s. She carries her baby and wanders through the streets of Al-Marja neighborhood in Damascus. She doesn’t have the luxury of taking many rests. She waits on the pavements for people passing, to approach them and ask for some money.
Yasmine’s uncle got her married in 2016 after her father passed away to avoid the burden of having to support her. The husband is not working in any particular job. He lives off begging, he and his wives and children. Yasmine sleeps, along with the man’s wives, in the garden adjacent to a hotel in Al-Marja. She takes a shower once per week in public bathrooms.
“The older wives beat me if I don’t cook or wash the clothes of the family of 13 persons”, Yasmine says, “I tried to escape twice, and once I went to a refugees center in Damascus suburbs. My husband, however, found me. He returned me and threatened to kill me if I try to do it again”. She added that she knows how to read and write, and that she wishes to study and become a nurse, who wears lovely white clothes, “I see some of them in the morning waiting for the bus”. She adds, “Sometimes I wake up startled from a recurring dream, where I try to strangle my husband”.
Cases at Razan’s* office, the gynecologist, show the gravity of disregard to physical dangers facing young girls who fell prey to child marriage.
Doaa*, 16, bends forward holding her belly, groaning feebly while she waits for her turn to see the doctor. She said that, twice, her pregnancy ended in abortion, but her husband and his family insists on having her pregnant again, although the fetus died after 6 months of pregnancy the last two times.
Dr. Razan says that this is something she witnesses everyday: kids between 13 and 17 giving birth. She added that in most cases girls suffer diseases after giving birth, including complications in the uterus, prolonged hemorrhage, and other complications because of giving birth in their homes. She added that once, a girl came to her, suffering severe complications in the womb, after a dentist in her neighborhood oversaw her labor.
The dangers child brides face are not limited to losing their babies and health complications due to early pregnancy.
Claudia Garcia Moreno, the WHO expert on Gender-Based Violence said, “Child marriage is often accompanied with a sudden and violent start of sexual relations”. She adds, “Young girls cannot refuse to have sex, and they lack resources, legal and social support to stay away from domestic abuse”.
A study published by the Syrian Center for Legal studies and Research, on its website in August 2017, states that the percentage of child marriage in the country before the war was 7% of all girls. This percentage increased annually along the war, until it became 15% in 2012. It was more than 30% by 2015. And according to Ministry of Justice statistics, child marriage was 10% of marriages recorded in Sharia courts in Damascus in 2013, and the ratio is much larger in rural areas far from the capital. In terms of unrecorded marriages in Sharia courts, the child marriage cases represent 60% of them.
The investigator sent many requests for information to the Ministry of Justice, for new statistics, or to interview the First Sharia Judge in Damascus, but the requests were denied.
The Civil Status code in Syria, issued in 1953 and known as the Sharia law, opens the door to child marriage, although it determined the minimum age of brides and grooms. Abdou Barboura, the lawyer specialized in Civil Status affairs of Christians, says that marriage of girls under 18 is an abhorred and refused act by most Christian sects, but Syrian law does not punish it, while some of its provisions allow child marriage (for girls and boys).
Article 16 of Sharia law states that, “Boys are legible for marriage on 18, and girls are legible for marriage on 17”. Simultaneously, the law did not ban the marriage of persons without legal capacity, since judges can allow the marriage of underage brides and grooms if they detect that their physical condition allow for marriage. If the guardian is the father or grandfather, his consent is necessary. In his absence, the judge become the guardian.
No to article 18
Arrif Al-Shaal, the lawyer, thinks it is imperative to abolish article 18 of Law 59/1953, which allows for lower minimum age of marriage of girls, as young as 13 years old. He thinks that article 20 is enough, which allows girls turning 17 to marry, with an amendment that states explicitly that this is the absolute minimum age of marriage for girls.
He called upon providing for an imprisonment sentence to guardians of girls who marry them off otherwise, beside punishing the husband if he is an adult, and punishing the clergyman overseeing the marriage and marriage witnesses, with a minimum of 1 year in prison for the husband and guardian.
Syrian legislators’ position towards women is still biased, although the Syrian government joined CEDAW (Convention against all forms of discrimination against women) in 2002. When it did, however, it declared reservations on many articles, including 16(1) that gives women equal rights in marriage, divorce, custody, minimum age of marriage, and obligatory registration of marriage certificates. Reservations also included article 2, that calls for including gender equality in national constitutions and laws, and for providing legal protection for women against discrimination, and working on changing laws, bylaws and traditions accordingly.
In July 2017, the government issued legislative order 230, canceling Syria’s reservation to article 2 of CEDAW, but “without contradiction with the provisions of Islamic Sharia”.
Religion does not prohibit determining a minimum age
Sheikh Abdul Ahad Mohamed Farag, the Imam of Al-Ahmad Mosque in Damascus suburbs, and a graduate of Al-Fatih Al-Islami Institute and Faculty of Sharia in Damascus, says that child marriage is not a Sunna [of the Prophet] that must be observed, or a heresy that must be avoided, because it was not sanctioned or prohibited by Sharia. Therefore, it remains “allowed” and being simply allowed means that governments can interfere with it and decide on it, in a way that fulfills the interests of the people.
He said that measuring in this matter to the marriage of Prophet Mohammad [PBUH] to Aisha is a “misguided measurement”, as religion scholars say, because the context in which the girl grows up makes all the difference, in relation to matters related to physical and mental development, as well as in relation to the needs of married life, which differs across ages. Life, back then, was simple, and its needs were limited. Today, however, life needs a lot of effort, and the responsibility granted to the wife is huge.
He added that because we live in a different age, with different life conditions, we see that it is in the interest of people that legislators should look differently at the proper age of marriage. This change is possible, from the point of view of Sharia, by applying the “Rules differ in different epochs” doctrine. He added that he thinks Sharia judges should keep their discretion in exceptional cases to allow or deny marriage.