Germany is on the frontline of controversial debate that has put European governments in a quandary – whether to recognise child marriage.
The dilemma is a legacy of Europe’s migration influx, which has seen more than a million refugees and migrants arrive in Germany over the last two years.
Denmark and The Netherlands have also been grappling with the issue, which UNICEF claims can lead to a lifetime of deprivation and disadvantage, putting the child at greater risk of falling pregnant early, dropping out of school and being in a violent relationship.
There were 1,475 married children living in Germany last summer, according to official figures, but some NGOs say this figure could be much higher.
Terre Des Femmes (TDF) says around a quarter of the children were assumed to be under 14, with one, a 13-year-old pregnant girl, thought to have married at 11.
Germany, which only allows marriage at 18 unless a family court intervenes, is debating if and from what age the marriage of child refugees should be recognised from. It is complicated by the fact that in many of the refugees’ home countries – Syria and Afghanistan for example – child marriage is legal.
The dilemma authorities face is intervene and they could be accused of breaking up families; step back and they could be effectively condoning child abuse.
Experts say the record refugee influx means child protection rules and regulations that have worked for years are now having to be looked at in a new light.
“The debate is really controversial,” Marion Brucker, a TDF spokeswoman told Euronews. “From positions which claim children as young as 14 should be accepted as exceptional cases, to Terre Des Femmes’ position that no exceptional cases should be accepted.
“Right now, the consensus seems to lead to accept that there can be exceptional cases from the age of 16.”
Those who don’t want imported child marriage to be recognised argue the ban would be in the best interests of the youngsters, helping to guarantee them fundamental rights such as education, health and a ‘carefree childhood’.
“Others argue if you do [allow child marriage] some of the refugees might not claim they are married and just hide it and not come to the attention of the protection services,” said Kirsten Di Martino, UNICEF’s Germany co-ordinator. “Therefore if they are in an abusive relationship or exploitative situation they may not be protected.”
Not a black-and-white issue
Many NGOs with child-support operations in Germany are at pains to point out the picture is often more complex than it appears.
“It’s a complicated matter,” said Maike Roettger, Plan International’s director for Germany. “The political discussion is always a bit black and white. But we as a child rights organisation have to look at the interests of the child.
“If you declare the marriages void then the rights of the girls might disappear. If there are children, what about them?
“So we’d say look at each case individually and give the support to the girl that she needs.”
Not all child marriages are simple cases of youngsters marrying in their home countries and then arriving in Europe.
“It’s not always a scenario of having a young girl married to a much older man, necessarily, because a lot of the refugees come from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and they are legally allowed to marry before the age of 18,” said Di Martino.
“There are cases of children who have married them precisely as a form of protection, not necessarily during the conflict but as they make their way away to escape the conflict, on the way to Germany, for example.
“It’s where the families felt, especially for the girl, if she was in a marital union, that would protect her from certain risks, like violence and sexual abuse.”
Roettger said there were also some girls who came to Germany because they know they can get divorced there.
One father, she added, brought her young daughters into the country specifically so they wouldn’t be married off early.
Roettger said coalition parties were deciding their position on child marriage, ahead of a debate in parliament.
There are fears however that a case in a regional court in Bamberg could open the door to legitimising child marriage.
City authorities took a 14-year-old Syrian girl into care, splitting her up from her 21-year-old cousin and husband.
The husband, also Syrian, appealed and initially lost the case. But the court in Bamberg said the case should be judged according to the country of origin, Syria, making the union legitimate. The case has been appealed to the federal court.
In Denmark authorities vowed to act after it emerged there were dozens of cases of girls living with older men in asylum centres.
But the policy was softened after politician Josephine Fock intervened.
She told Metroxpress news service: “It is completely outrageous. We are talking about people who have fled to Denmark who are being split from each other. Some of them have children together and investigating individual [asylum] cases takes an unbelievably long time.”
The Netherlands has been much tougher on the issue. It closed a legal loophole which allowed child brides to live with older husbands in asylum centres.
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