“Mothers before their time”

Ola Al-Hariri- Istanbul: 

Inside the maternity ward of the public “Dugum” hospital in Gaziantep, Turkey, the Syrian refugee Nour Shabaan, aged 17, lies in a bed for pregnant women, getting ready to give birth to her baby.

The parents are overjoyed at the coming baby, perhaps it will make them forget the bitterness of displacement and moving away from their homeland since they settled in the Turkish town of Gaziantep 3 years ago fleeing the horrors of the Syrian war.

Nour delivers the baby, and things go smoothly but then the hospital refuses to give the baby to the parents on the pretext that the mother’s refugee ID has a wrong age, because she was married under the legal age of marriage (18 years). The hospital decided to keep the baby, and refer the mother to trial at once.

When Nour delivered the baby, she was 17 years old. When she got married, she was 16. In both cases, she was violating the Family Law provisions on marriage, that bans the marriage of girls under 18. This violation is described by the law as “a crime of sexual exploitation”, punishable by prison terms ranging between 8 and 15 years, according to Articles 103-105 of the Turkish Penal Code.

Although the law banning marriage of children in Turkey applies also to other foreigners living in the country, including Syrian refugees, the lack of knowledge about it, and lack of awareness about the consequences of early marriage (beside the lack of NGOs and societal oversight) led to the spread of these early marriages among the Syrian community.

The World Health Organisation estimates that there are 16 million girls around the world between 15 and 19 years old, and one million girls under 15, who give birth each year.

According to World Bank statistics for 2017, the rate of pregnancy of girls between 15 and 19 years old in Syria is around 39 cases in each 1,000 girl.

Nour is one of a great number of Syrian refugees who live in Turkey as refugees and who got married under 18 either on Turkish soil or in Syria, and then entered Turkey refugees after their marriage or having given birth in hospitals under the legal age of marriage.

According to Haydar Houri, a specialist lawyer, without being aware of the consequences of underage marriage, the fathers of the girls encourage their marriage to older men (over 18) and become legally accountable after managing the marriage. This issue is spreading throughout Turkey.

The law classifies a minor as anyone under the age of 18, according to Ghazwan Qoronful, head of the Syrian Lawyers Collective in Turkey (a group of Syrian lawyers who provide legal aid to refugees in courts of law). He adds that under the Syrian Personal Status Law, Article 85, a minor does not reach the age of eligibility until they reach 18.

According to law number 5395, covering children in Turkey, a minor is considered to be anyone below the age of 18, added Qoronful.

While early marriage is defined as the marriage of a person under the age of 18 year, according to Qoronful “This marriage in the eyes of the Turkish law is not marriage. It is categorized as sexual assault against a minor.”

The consequences of this “assault” is usually to refer such cases (usually captured at hospitals during delivery or when a girl is discovered as pregnant and her age turns out to be under 18) to the public prosecution office, that in turn moves the case on to the courts. The husband and girl’s parent are arrested. Sometimes, the girl herself is arrested, and they all are turned over to the court, according to Qoronful.

DNA test for the child

Gaziantep’s hospital decided to let Nour go, after she recovered from the delivery. The baby stayed at the hospital. The hospital ordered a DNA test to confirm his identity as to whether he’s indeed her son, and the mother found herself in another pitfall.

Nour confessed to the investigator that she forged her age and real name. She said, “for this case, I used the help of a Syrian lawyer to oversee the test procedures, and for taking a blood sample from the baby for the test. The lawyer wasn’t able to help, however. So I hired a Turkish lawyer. Now, I am waiting for the results, to see if they will allow me to take the baby home. They allow me to see him, however. I go see him every 3 days, because the hospital is away from where I live. It is a long distance that I cannot commute through daily.”

Nour’s baby came to the world 2 months and 5 days before I interviewed her on 25 January 2019. Since then, nothing has changed. She is still waiting for the DNA test’s results, and is waiting for the baby to come home. But she’s “optimistic”, and waits for the day the baby will return to her.

In case he doesn’t return, she said, the lawyer told her he will file a case against the hospital. This is what gives her hope and keeps her going.

“I know a girl who had been through this before me. She delivered her baby 7 months ago, and the tests results showed up few days back”, said Nour, “So now she can take the baby from the hospital.”

The test done through the Ministry of Health’s budget was a relief for the mother, since she didn’t have to pay for it. The lawyer’s fees, however, reached 7,000 Turkish Liras ($1200). The family had to go into debt because they didn’t have even one single Lira to start with, according to Nour.

A love story

Nour regrets forging her name and age. But her motive for this was being afraid of having her real age discovered, because she did this in order to marry her cousin (20 years old), after a love story, she claims. She lives with her in-laws now, while her parents and siblings live in Adana, southern Turkey.

“I am sad because my child is not with me, but what can I do. God willing, in a few days he will return to me. They care for the babies at hospital. Every time I go visit I see he’s clean and well-fed”, Nour said, “I couldn’t breastfeed him because right after delivering the baby I had to go to court each day, and I wasn’t able at that time to go visit the hospital as well to breastfeed him.”

“At the hospital, they said that my boy looks like me. But they need a legal proof. I feel so sad because I couldn’t breastfeed him. I begged the hospital to let me do that, but each time they deny my request.”

At the court

Marwa Alyoussef is 17 years old. She has been married to her cousin, who works as a tailor, for two years now, since she was 15 years old. Her story is not so different from Nour’s, but she endured different kinds of suffering that were reflected on her life in Turkey as the country she fled to from Syria.

Marwa who came from the famous al-Midan neighborhood, Damascus, didn’t notarize her marriage (that was conducted in Syria) at the Turkish authorities. Therefore, she lacks reliable documentation about her social status in Turkish governmental records. She had a baby from her marriage. The baby is now one year old.

Marwa said, “I delivered the baby at the Bagajlar public hospital in Istanbul. I wasn’t interrogated or asked any questions during the delivery. However, one year after the delivery, the police came and asked me to go visit the station. I went, and they held an investigation for me. They reviewed my documentation, and gave me a date to go visit the court, 4 months later.”

When Marwa entered the courtroom at Karakoy, Istanbul, after referral from the police, she found a translator, a psychiatrist, a judge, and a public writer. She said, “They asked me so many questions about my personal life. Questions like, ‘do you regret your marriage? Do you love your husband? Did someone coerce you into getting married? Do you currently have a job?’. These were important questions for them because they do not allow married women my age to work outside the household. They also asked me to refrain from pregnancy for 3 years.”

Until now, Marwa doesn’t know what she did wrong, because “marriage at that young age is so widespread in Syria, not only within my family. I married before I come to Turkey. I have papers to prove it. There is nothing wrong with me getting married”, Marwa said.

According to her, she knows about “so many marriages of girls at 12 and 13 years old. I mean once the girl reaches puberty she would get married, nothing is wrong with that”.

“I have many friends with the same issue. They can face imprisonment. They went to court many times, because they get a ruling of being innocent from accusations against them. They also paid lots of money, reaching 20,000 Liras ($3660) in some cases, and as low as 5,000 Liras ($915) in other cases, as fees for lawyers, commute, and other costs related to the court.”

Meanwhile, she also fears the repercussions on her husband if the authorities discover their early marriage and how they had a baby while they were both minors, under the age of marriage. She waits for the next court hearing in late April 2019.

She said, “I am afraid that they might take my husband. I love him so much. In case the court decides to put him in prison, we might go back to Syria, although he was summoned there for military conscription.”

Marriage in Turkey

  • Marriage in Turkey is civil marriage. Turkish family law organizes marriage, and its provisions do not rely on religions [sic].
  • Age of marriage: 18 years old.
  • Exceptions from the age limit:
    • Persons at 17, with the consent of parents.
    • Persons at 16, after consent from the judge at family court.
    • People with special needs who are 18 or older, can get married after consent from the family court’s judge, based on medical reports about their capacity to get married.
  • No polygamy in Turkey.
  • Any marriage concluded outside municipalities’ marriage offices is not legal.

Source for the infographics: Syrian lawyer Haydar Houri

A widespread phenomenon

The phenomenon of early marriage among minor Syrian girls in Turkey, and in other countries of destination for Syrian refugees, is like a snowball that keeps rolling and getting bigger. It persists in the absence of awareness about the risks and dangers, and in spite of the grave psychological problems it produces for the family (parents and children alike). This phenomenon has become well known from the media focus directed at it, in order to help spread awareness about it, and to try and find a solution that might help control this phenomenon.

In an investigation report by ‘Al-Arabi Al-Jadid’ entitled “Underage mothers in Turkey” on 15 March 2018, it was pointed out that the reception at one hospital, during the first five months of last year, had visits from 115 pregnant children. Police were not notified about them. They included 39 Syrians, and the rest were Turkish. Among the 115 cases, 38 were minors under 15 years old.

This is what led the Turkish authorities to open two separate investigations. The first is related to public servants accused of negligence. The second is related to the exploitation of children.

Public Prosecution managed to investigate the cases of 20 of the accused, and to conduct investigations related to 50 minors, in the presence of a psychiatrist. Investigations had shown that all pregnant minors live in neighborhoods and municipalities of Istanbul with high population concentration of people who moved there from Eastern and South Eastern Turkey.

In the same context, in Sweden, the country that received around 110 thousand Syrian refugees, representing the second biggest migrant group in the country,132 minor refugees were married to adults according to UNHCR’s statistics until 2016, although the numbers didn’t specify their gender. This has led the Swedish Tax Authority to strengthen the rules of evaluating and registering child-marriage cases, even if other authorities allowed such marriages.

In Germany, which hosts 699,000 Syrians, representing the third biggest migrant group in the country, the Federal Statistics Office in 2018, and the Federal Ministry of Homeland Security, estimated that 1,475 minors registered as married, including 361 girls under 14. This led the Ministry of Justice to introduce a bill, by which the German government will not recognize marriages documented through foreign marriage certificates, in case one of the couple is under 18.

Birth, but under conditions

When Israa Muhammad (15 years) decided to go to the public hospital in Kilis, Turkey to give birth to her first child, the hospital denied her entry. She decided to go to a private hospital, but she didn’t make it through the door there either.

“The doctor shouted at me, saying you are young, and the child is small”, said Israa, “I cannot take responsibility in case one of you dies, which is very probable.”

She added, “At that time, I was in great pain, giving birth, and the baby was almost fully born. We didn’t know where to go, but God put in our way a legal midwife, who agreed to do the operation. She said she will do it on condition that she will not be held responsible if something happened to me or the baby. We could only accept, because we didn’t have any other options.”

Dr. Sawat Irchahin, the head gynecologist at Medical Park in Istanbul, said, “Early marriage has a negative influence on the health of mother and child. Symptoms appear early in the pregnancy, with nonstop vomiting, anemia, as well as the possibility of miscarriage and early births. This is because of female hormones at this early age, or because the uterus is not ready yet for pregnancy. This leads to spasms that might lead to hemorrhage, and thus early births happen. The young girl can also suffer high blood pressure, leading to kidney failure, internal hemorrhage, spams, and the need for cesarean operations become more likely.”

The doctor confirmed that early pregnancy “increases the likelihood of suffering bone deformations in the pelvic area and the spine. It can also negatively affect the embryo’s health. The embryo can suffocate inside the mother because of a likely severe shortage in the blood circulation feeding him.”

Early birth can also lead to a shortage in the respiratory functions, because the embryo can be born without fully formed lungs. The child can suffer problems in the digestive system, and a delay in physical and mental growth. The child can also suffer brain paralysis or hearing impairments, according to Dr. Irchahin.

Getting pregnant once again

The pain and suffering Israa had been through didn’t stop her from getting pregnant one more time. She didn’t think about how her early marriage would  be discovered when she went to the hospital to give birth to her second child. At the time, she was 16 years old.

“When I was pregnant with my second child, I went to the Kamil public hospital,” said Israa. “There, they had to receive me, because the baby’s head had already emerged. They quickly put me in the delivery room. After the baby was born, they registered my personal data, and soon enough the police came to interrogate me. They kept me at the hospital for 12 days.”

During that period, her daughter was inside an incubator in the hospital. The mother went through investigations and interrogations. They took her fingerprints, and in the end allowed her to leave the hospital with her baby girl.

She said, “I felt I was a prisoner released. I told myself I will not get pregnant again until I am 20.”

How the prosecution proceeds

  • The case starts during child birth, or during consulting the doctors while monitoring births in public hospitals and clinics.
  • Police are notified by the doctor, because failing to inform the police is considered a crime.
  • The Supreme Criminal Court in Turkey manages these cases, because the penalty is over 5 years of imprisonment.
  • Penalties, based on the judge’s discretion can reach 10 years in prison, according to the Turkish Penal Code.
  • The case starts without the need for someone filing it.
  • The case is referred to prosecution, that demands verdicts against the husband and the minor’s parent.

 Source: Haydar Houri, Syrian lawyer.

The Social-media’s market

Some groups and pages specialized in matters related to women and girls on social media provide a forum for discussions about child marriage and refugee affairs in host communities in general. Some of these pages also provide information for arranging marriages.

A woman for example would say she needs a wife for her son or another relative, with specific demands, like her age, height, where she lives, etc, and proposals start coming her way.

This investigator witnessed several cases, where she contacted the people in question, but it is hard to expose their real names because the topic is sensitive. Samar (not her real name) says she got married at 14, and delivered her first baby at 15, at a private hospital in Istanbul. She didn’t go to a public hospital fearing the procedures. But she had to go to public healthcare facilities to vaccinate the child.

There, officials initiated an investigation into her about her marriage and when it happened. The police also interrogated her the next day.

Her father was arrested, and police searched for her husband, who is on the run until now, according to her post.

Social expert Adel Hanif Ughlu, who worked in 2012-2013 on documenting 11 child marriage cases of girls, including 9 cases ending in kidney failure, says, “Syrian families hide this affairs very well. Even those who have Turkish nationality have their daughters married while still minors, even though they know this is a crime under Turkish laws.”

Official statistics and numbers

* 405,521 Syrian children have been born in Turkey in up to November 2018.

Source: Minister of Interior, Süleyman Soylu, 22 February 2019.

* Urfa province in southern Turkey is among the provinces with highest occurrences of Syrian births.

* 400 Syrian children are born in Turkey each day.

* Urfa’s share of that number is 50 to 55 per day.

Source: Head of Migration Research Center, Muhammad Murad Erdogan, 25 October 2018.

* Over half a million Syrian children are born in Turkey and who are under 4 years, do not possess any nationality (stateless).

* Current number of those registered as deserving temporary protection is 3.5 million.

* The number of stateless newborns and children under 4 in Turkey is 535,826.

Source: Turkish Migration and Refuge Authority, and the Ombudsman office, 25 August 2018.

Endless psychological problems

Early marriage doesn’t leave its mark on the girl’s physical health only, but it also leads to deep psychological crises that become hard to get through with the passage of time, for the girl and for her children. Psychiatrist Omnia Turk says that this early marriage “denies the girl the kindness of her parents, and her right to choose a husband herself. It also means denying her living her full childhood. The girl doesn’t understand married life, or the responsibility on her shoulders, leading to huge pressures in some cases. Also, she suffers problems in her sexual life, because she doesn’t understand married or sexual life. This leads to breakdowns between the couple, and the inability to adjust with the problems of marriage.”

Another aspect negatively affecting the children, is that they do not understand that the mother herself is a minor, and “that leads to unsound and unwise decisions, because the minor doesn’t care for giving her children education. She didn’t acquire the ability to discipline or raise the children, let alone being denied herself the right to education, which negatively influences her and the children.”

She added, “When she grows up, the minor discovers that she married the wrong person, or not the person she wants to continue her life with. She discovers that she was used as if she was an object for sale.”

Early marriage in religion

Marriage cannot happen unless the couple are on equal terms. In Sharia, this equality is required. Here, Dr. Muhammad Nadir, a lecturer at Karabük University, Turkey, says, “If the girl marries a person who is not equal to her, without her consent, the marriage is considered null and void, according to most Ulama (experts in religious law).”

According to Dr. Nadir, “The couple being on an equal footing is an inherent right for the woman. She cannot be coerced into forfeiting that right. It is a condition for marriage, and marriage of minors is void of this quality. Sharia might grant the minor a separate/independent financial capacity, overseen by her parent, in her interest. Her money cannot be spent except in her interest. Interest in marriage is even more important than finances, because honor is more important than money.”

Solutions to the phenomenon

Faced with this reality and in the absence of sufficient solutions for the problematic phenomenon of early marriage in Turkey among the Syrians, and regardless of if that marriage was conducted in Syria or Turkey, the future of such marriages is vague. Against the strict Turkish Law, Nour and Marwa will keep waiting for the results of their prosecution, anxiously waiting for the influence on their future and lives. Here, the Syrian lawyer Haydar Houri recommends to avoid marriage before 18. This marriage, according to him, is problematic, because, “There are many cases of prosecution in Turkey.”

When the minor girl is discovered as being married, one of two methods is used. Either to refer her to a shelter for minors, or return her to her family home, and make the family promise not to send her ever again to the husband.

Houri, on the other hand, recommends that any person married to a minor girl in Turkey, should try to document his marriage in one way or another in Syria, to avoid penalty. This is because once the marriage is documented by Syrian Sharia courts, this documentation can be used in the prosecution to avoid penalizing the husband, because the act is a crime in his country.

*This investigation was conducted under supervision of the Syrian Investigative Reporting Unit – SIRAJ, within the context of “Syria In Depth” project, conducted in cooperation with the Guardian Foundation, with support from IMS.