Investigated by: Jandi Khaldi
Nesrine was in sixth grade. Instead of getting her primary education certificate by the end of the school year, she got a marriage certificate. The Kurdish girl from Al-Kournish neighborhood, Qamishli, Hasaka governorate in northeast Syria said, “I was coerced into marriage, after a lot of pressure and coercion from my family, to a man 15 years older than me”. Marriage didn’t last more than a year. She said that her husband and his family “were watching me and banning me from visiting family and friends. They even sold my jewelry without telling me”. The child couldn’t bear the suffering, so her father got her a divorce. “My in-laws agreed to divorce after I relinquished all my rights, and I do not regret the decision I took”.
Nesrine is one of a growing number of children who fall prey to early marriage in the Kurdish area in Syria, according to civil society activists. More and more children fall into marriage since the crisis erupted in Syria, in 2011, in spite of the presence of laws in the Kurdish region, and in spite of procedures taken to face child marriage. Hundreds of girls find the solution in joining the People’s Protection Units (YPG) to become fighters someday, away from family pressure to get married.
Hadeel Mohamed, who was married at 13, said that she had 5 children in 6 years of marriage on request from her in-laws.
“I was required to deliver a child each year”, said Hadeel who lives in Al-Ashouriya neighborhood, Qamishli, Hasaka. The health and physical cost on girls is guaranteed in these circumstances, according to gynecologists.
Saadiya from Misloun Neighborhood, Qamishli, said, “I had to get married at 15, because of poverty, after my father passed away. During pregnancy I was in poor health, and I suffered an internal hemorrhage during delivery, beside facing anemia and loss of appetite”.
Dr. Ghazala Shwish, the gynecologist from the city, confirmed that child marriage can “lead to cuts, hemorrhage, and lacerations in the uterus”.
“The bone structure of the pelvis takes its final shape at 18”, she added, “The incompletion of the bone structure leads to deformations in the pelvis, and affects the embryo also, which is born with a smaller or incomplete head. There are many cases of abortion also”.
Early maturation accelerates the bone formation of the pelvis, but “when it is time for menstruation, it takes at least two years until it becomes regular and stabilized”, according to Shwish.
Shwish advices those who marry early to “postpone pregnancy, because she is still a child, and she is not ready, physiologically, physically, or mentally, for pregnancy”.
Harmful effects of early marriage are not limited to girls. It threatens the whole society in the broader sense of the word. Hadeel, who became a mother of five before she turned 20, said, “After my husband died in a traffic accident, I now fear that they might become delinquent”, she added, “they do not listen to me, and I cannot control them or discipline them. I am helpless”.
Psychologist Sawsan Sayed Essa said, “A woman must reach full psychological maturity before she can run a marriage”.
She added that girls do not have the ability to take decisions like marriage. Moreover, even if they want to, the decision is often wrong. At this age, a girl is living in “a state between being a child and teenager, and she might find it nice to feel like an adult”.
Social worker Harmeen Harsan, from Qamishli, warns that child marriage “leads to dysfunctional families and increased rates of divorce that can pull society apart”. She considers the reasons for the increase in this phenomenon in Kurdish areas to be “the prevalence of unemployment and poverty due to the war in Syria, that had been going on for 7 years”.
Conscription as a solution
In 2012, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which made Kurdish areas an autonomous region, launched the People’s Protection Units (YPG), and Women Protection Units (YPJ), which are military units that have in their ranks Kurdish, Arab, and Syriac fighters, to protect the Kurdish region (Rojava or West Kurdistan).
Head of Public Relations in the YPJ, leader Nesrine Abdallah, said that young girls, “come to us because of family pressures on them. For example they face beating in their homes, or are forced into marriage at a very young age”.
However, she said that conscripts are not allowed to join units until they reach 18 years old. Then only, they can participate in fighting assignments, according to treaties joined by the Units in 2014, in collaboration with Geneva Call, that seeks to get non-state actors to fulfill international humanitarian standards and the protection of children from armed conflicts.
She added that those who join the Units before reaching 18 years old are sent to a protection and rehabilitation center for underage persons.
“We have 300 girls so far”, she said, “underage girls who fled early marriages are 5 percent of those. When they turn 18, they can join the fighting after taking the oath”.
In order to get a permission to visit one of the shelters for underage conscripts that follow the YPJ, I had to wait for 3 months, because of strict procedures for their protection. In the center close to Derek city (Al-Malkiya), 90 km from eastern Qamishli, Shelan, 15 years old, said that she joined the center a year ago. She fled her home because she was beaten by her folks each now and then. She added that at the center, she is not beaten, she learns many things, and she enjoys a spirit of comradeship with the other girls.
Dildar (17 years old) said that she joined the center two years ago, when she faced “injustice from my family and restrictions on my freedom”.
Zilan (17 years old) said that she joined the center two years ago and that her life “was substantially enhanced, because I learned things you would never learn outside, related to my rights and freedoms as a female”.
There is a daily program for girls in the centers. They practice sports, take lessons in languages, sciences, mathematics, culture and heritage, beside practicing different hobbies in their leisure time.
“We train and protect them, in suitable and good residence,” said Nesrine Abdallah, “and we rebuild them, we discuss their social and psychological problems”.
Explicit prohibition by law
After around two years of establishing the YPG and YPJ, the establishment of the Kurdish autonomous region was declared in January 2014. The autonomous authority developed various laws that differ in content and procedures from laws by the Syrian government. The legislative body of the region endorsed the Women Law in 2014, and it established the Social Justice Court, or People’s Court, although there is a court that follows the Syrian government in the Kurdish region.
Unlike the exceptions in the Syrian Civil Status Law, number 59/1953, the new Women Law in the Kurdish region prohibited child marriage. Article 24 states that, “girls are prohibited from marriage until they reach 18 years old”. The law provided for a penalty of 7 years imprisonment on the parent and the party that conducts the marriage contract. It considered the parent and this party partners in fraud.
If the prohibition is violated, article 24 of the law allows for filing cases against the parent of the girl and the party that conducts the marriage contract.
Elham Omar, the director of the Women Center in Al-Jazeera district, a women organization that follows the STAR coalition under the democratic society movement (TEV DEM), an umbrella group for various parties, political organizations, societal and feminist groups, that conducts activities related to family, society, and women in the district, said that the girl, after getting married, can sue her parent and the parent of her husband in court.
Aven Jomaa the associate director of the Human Rights Organization in Al-Jazeera, northeast of Syria, said that the court received 14 such cases in 2017. She added that, “we documented these cases according to the information we received from the Social Justice/People’s Court, and the organization’s annual report for 2017 confirmed these numbers”.
We were not able to get a confirmation for the number from the Social Justice Court.
“Underage girls are not divorced until they sue their parents and the parents of husbands”, said Elham Omar, “but they return to their families until they reach 18 years old then they continue their married lives”.
Although there are no meticulous statistics and surveys, child marriage after the crisis in Syria is increasing by the day, because of dire living conditions, poverty, and increased fertility rates. The norms and traditions in the region also play a role in this, according to Mona Abdulsalam, the spokesperson for “Sara for Fighting Violence Against Women” Organization, which is licensed by the autonomous authority, and conducts activities related to women rights and protection of women in Qamishli.
“Child marriage is gender based violence”, she added, “but its rate increased because families are saying they cannot sustain girls education in universities, because of the dire traveling conditions between Syrian governorates, and because their destiny is marriage anyway”.
Before getting to court
The Kurdish region witnesses societal momentum that tries to overcome the phenomenon, without going to court. This movement managed to stop hundreds of child marriage cases, according to civil society workers.
Elham omar from the Women Center, said that the organization conducts societal activities that include seeking to stop child marriage and polygamy.
“We are notified by the Kumeen (grassroots council for neighborhoods that follow the autonomous authority) about marriage or engagement of children”, added Elham Omar, “we then form delegations from the Women Center and visit the girl’s home to discuss the matter with parents. We talk about the risks of child marriage and its legal prohibition. The discussion convinces them to stop the marriage”.
She said that at the Women Center, they stopped, in 2017, 172 child marriage cases in Qamishli and Qamishli countryside, “but on the level of the Jazeera district, we stopped 1000 cases”. The district is about 77 percent of the Kurdish region’s area, that includes also Kubani and Efrin.
She added that in case the parents are not convinced to stop the marriage, “we refer the matter to the Prosecution Office, for the case to take its course”.
“But in Qamishli and Qamishli countryside, we managed to convince the great majority, and we didn’t go to Prosecution except in rare cases”, which explains why prosecutions at the People’s Court are few.
Perhaps the activities of civil society organizations is the only option that could have saved Nesrine, who got married in her sixth grade. At such an age, she wasn’t aware of the legal options and the possibility of filing a case. She didn’t know that she can join the Care Centers run by the YPJ.
The official spokesperson at Sara Organization said that, “law on its own is not enough, to limit the cases of child marriage”, she added, “law wasn’t enforced broadly enough in all regions, and there is a need for collaboration between various stakeholders, until everyone abide by the law”.
Beside the lack of awareness and families’ efforts to lessen their financial burdens, Elham Omar stated another reason for increased child marriage cases, “because some of them want the Women Law to fail, since it is new to society”.
In this context, it doesn’t look like there is an eminent end to child marriage, in spite of the law that prohibits it, and in spite of the presence of protection centers for girls, accompanied with societal efforts to limit the extent of the phenomenon.