The case had caused a sensation and indignation a few days ago: a young girl, dressed up with a veil and a magnificent white wedding dress with gold borders. Next to her: Abdulrzak Ampatuan, who possesses his hand on her head – her husband. The 48-year-old from the city of Mamasapano (Philippines) has just made Asnaira Pamansag Mugaling (13) his fifth wife!
Unfortunately, nothing unusual in the South Asian island nation. The Children’s Fund Unicef defines a child marriage as a formal marriage in which at least one of the partners is under 18 years of age. Unicef estimates that twelve million girls have to enter into child marriage every year.
Even in Germany there are cases in which girls as children are forced into marriages with adult men!
The women’s rights organization Terre des Femmes has been fighting against forced and early marriage for years. In an interview with BILD, specialist advisor Myria Böhmecke (46) explains who and how many girls are affected, how they are helped and how more information is to be provided.
“We are not aware of any comparable cases in Germany in which such very young girls are married to much older men, as in the case in the Philippines,” says the expert. “Nevertheless, early marriage is a big problem: the girls often have to leave school and often become pregnant soon, which usually means a high health risk. In addition to the often lifelong dependence on the husband, the risk of domestic and sexual violence is significantly increased. “
“There is the phenomenon in the local Turkish and Arabic-speaking community even in the second and third generation, but also in the Bulgarian or Romanian community. There has been an increase since the waves of refugees in recent years, when people from strictly patriarchal countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran came to us. ”
According to a recent study by the Federal Ministry of Justice (2017 to the first quarter of 2020) there were 1232 such cases: 16 to 17-year-olds who got married abroad and came to Germany as a minor, says Myria Böhmecke.
What is the legal situation in Germany?
In July 2017, after the large influx of refugees from the Middle East, a new “law to combat” child marriage came into force in Germany, which raised the minimum age for marriage to 18 years. Previously, there were individual decisions, and a marriage at 16 was possible – provided the family court had approved.
With the new regulation, marriages between under 16-year-olds were declared completely null and void, and marriages of 16- and 17-year-olds are to be repealed. Only in special cases of hardship and after hearing the minors and the youth welfare office will a family court decide whether the marriage will continue – or whether the minors will be taken into custody.
Implementation of the law difficult
Because as well as the law is meant – its implementation is difficult: “Few of those affected dare to rebel against their situation,” says Myria Böhmecke. “The young girls are often under immense psychological pressure – including physical violence from their husbands and their own families. And so we fear that many do not dare to seek help from the authorities and that cases of marriages with minors are not even noticed. So they claim to want to stay with their husband voluntarily and out of love, especially when there are children. ”
Such a marriage is then confirmed upon reaching the age of majority. However, if the youth welfare offices determine that the child’s welfare is at risk (such as abuse), the spouses are separated and the young wife is temporarily or permanently taken into care (e.g. placement in a child and youth welfare facility with psychological care). “Women’s shelters are not an option, even for young adults, as they are often traumatized and cannot yet cope with the newly won ‘freedom’.”
Another problem: “The high number of unreported cases that the authorities are not even aware of, since such marriages are often concluded in traditional religious ceremonies,” says Böhmecke.
Another assumption is that those affected entered the country in large family groups, some of them without papers, and that the young women often looked older, so that a married minor was not noticed at all. “They often speak no or only bad German, are completely dependent on their husbands and so at their mercy.”
Since the law came into force in 2017, according to Myria Böhmecke, there have only been 104 proceedings out of 140 applications for the dissolution of such “early marriages”. “But the resolution was actually only implemented in eleven cases.”
New regulation by the Federal Constitutional Court
The law, which is only three years old, could soon be overturned by the Federal Constitutional Court (BVG), says Myria Böhmecke – “in relation to the flat rate Nullity of marriages concluded with persons under 16 ”. The rule that in Germany you can only get married at the age of 18 will remain in place.
The background is the case of a Syrian refugee couple who came to Germany in August 2015. The two married in February 2015 in a Syrian Sharia court. The husband was 21 years old on the wedding anniversary, his wife 14.
The couple was separated in Germany. The underage woman was placed in a youth welfare facility for female, underage, unaccompanied refugees. The youth welfare office was appointed guardian.
After complaints from several instances, the case landed before the Federal Court of Justice, which handed it over to the BVG – to clarify whether child marriages concluded abroad are actually generally ineffective (AZ: XII ZB 292/16).
Myria Böhmecke: “Should it come to that, we would be back to individual decisions – an immense setback for the women concerned, who the law wanted to protect.”
With education against child marriage
For Terre des Femmes, in addition to strengthening women’s rights, the most important thing is education and prevention: “Many girls don’t even know where they can get help if they are mistreated and threatened or forced into an early marriage,” says Myria Böhmecke. “With our theater project ‘My Heart Belongs to Me’ we will go to schools in Berlin from next summer, and there was a similar project in Baden-Württemberg. We fear that we will no longer reach the parents’ generation – but we must try to reach the young people and convince them of their equality. “
On the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25th, Terre des Femmes has once again announced a day of action against forced and early marriage. It will be held in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin from 2 p.m.