The COVID-19 pandemic has increased poverty, which could lead to an increase in underage marriages among migrants in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) according to a recent report published by the UK-based charity Save the Children.
The report, titled “Married by Exception: Child Marriage Policies in the Middle East and North Africa,” consists of studies conducted on 75 young girls in Turkey, Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon. According to the report, underage marriages are higher among migrant groups in these countries than the national average.
The report said many migrant families had lost their income during the pandemic and that many children had lost their access to education. Moreover, the anxiety of families concerning the security of their children’s futures had increased during the pandemic. These conditions had led to the increase in underage marriages.
Ezgi Şahin Dabbagh from Save the Children said migrant girls were not aware of the laws that protected them from forced marriages. “Migrant girls are in the greatest risk group in Turkey when it comes to underage and forced marriages,” she said. “Neither the girls nor their families are aware of the law, which makes it easier for them to be exploited.”
The report said revisions in Turkey’s civil law also caused an increase in such marriages. Until 2015 religious marriages were permitted only if a civil marriage had already taken place. Religious authorities who conducted marriages without a civil marriage certificate could be sentenced to prison. However the Constitutional Court abolished this requirement in 2015, and two years later marriage certificates issued by religious authorities were also recognized by the state.
Critics slammed the decision, saying religious authorities were more prone to turning a blind eye to underage marriages.
Although the legal age of marriage is 18 in Turkey, some minors can marry with parental consent at the age of 17. In the event there is a “compelling reason,” some minors are granted permission by a court for marriage at 16.
Women’s organizations have said many marriages among migrants are unregistered in Turkey making it difficult to know how pervasive underage marriages are.
Save the Children said in order to protect migrant girls the minimum age for marriage should be 18 with no religious or cultural exceptions and that all marriages should be officially registered.
Save the Children’s report confirmed research conducted by Turkey’s Hacettepe University in 2018 among married women between the ages 20 and 24. According to the research 15 percent of these women were married before the age of 18. However, among married Syrian women in the same age group, 50 percent were married before 18.
A midwife identified as Neval working for the Devtesti Center, a women’s and girls’ safe space in Urfa, said they had witnessed the worrying results of underage marriages among refugees. “Sometimes we see girls who are 14 or 15 who are pregnant,” she said.
Neval added that child brides were deeply impoverished and poorly educated.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), underage marriage is still a controversial issue in Turkey as it prevents proper education for girls and makes them vulnerable to violence and poverty.