Germany is taking a harder look at child marriage

Jan 6, 2017

It’s just a bus stop in a city in northern Germany.

But for some of the migrant women who’ve escaped violent and abusive relationships, it’s also a second birthplace. 

“The emotional connection to this place is so deep,” says Irina Bedawi, who works with a network of activists helping women in Germany escape abusive situations.

“This [is] where they start over again,” Bedawi tells me, standing under the bus shelter. “The start of a new life and safe existence.”  

The bus stop is one of the places where Bedawi and her colleagues meet women and girls in their moment of need. They either call the emergency hotline set up by Bedawi’s group, or often they are referred by the police, because they say they need shelter. 

The activists help the women find places to stay in one of the safe houses in this and other cities, known in Germany as “women’s houses.” When she meets a young woman at a place like the bus stop, Bedawi says it’s often the case that she is there because her life is in danger.

“We meet here, and then take a taxi or walk around the block to make sure no one is following us,” Bedawi says. If a woman or girl decides she wants to stay in a shelter, “We don’t tell her to go to the shelter straight away, because that would be too dangerous.” 

Bedawi says the locations of the shelters are kept secret, even from police. 

The difficulties of escaping a violent marriage are well known to Irina Bedawi, which is not her real name. It’s a pen name she used to tell her personal story in a new book, “Wenn der Pfau weint,” which translates as, “When the Peacock Starts to Cry.”

Bedawi comes from a Yazidi family, a religious minority from the Middle East. She grew up in Tbilisi, Georgia and moved to Germany with her family when she was 15. At the age of 16, she was married off by her strict father to a much older man whom she hardly knew.

“What could I say to a 31-year-old?” Bedawi says. Her husband controlled her life completely, she says. He was violent and abusive. Worst of all, he raped her. And it went on for eight years. 

“This is a pure and long-lasting assault,” Bedawi tells me through tears. “I’m branded by this and the world doesn’t understand. We [women who are sexually abused at a young age] have injuries inside. My life is deeply traumatized.” 

But Bedawi’s family pressured her to stay with her husband. The couple had two children together. She says he threatened to take the kids if she tried to leave him. Things changed, she says, after he threatened to kill her with a knife. 

That’s when she says she finally got the courage to get out. She took her kids with her and they went into hiding at a women’s shelter. Several years later, Bedawi says some of her fears have subsided and she has learned how to live freely. 

She has paid dearly for that freedom. Bedawi says she is shunned by her family and has been ostracized by the Yazidi minority community in Germany. She doesn’t want her picture taken. She doesn’t want me to mention the German city where she lives with her children. 

But Bedawi says she won’t stop speaking out against child marriage. 

In Germany, couples can get married if one spouse is 16 or 17 with special permission from a family court. But marriage for people under the age of 18 was relatively rare up until a year or two ago, when more than a million migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the Muslim world arrived as migrants and refugees.

Now, German authorities say there are about 1,500 registered marriages with one spouse under the age of 18. Because it is easy to get forged documents in countries like Syria, the actual number of child marriages in Germany is probably much higher, according to Bedawi. 

A regional court in the city of Bamberg last year decided to recognize the marriage of two Syrian refguees living in Germany, even though the girl was only 14 when she was married to her 20-year-old cousin back in Syria. The case is being appealed in federal court. 

The couple’s lawyer, Birgit NaAmni, told me that she is not in favor of forced marriage. “I’m a mother myself,” she said. But this union between the two young Syrians must be recognized under German law, in part because it is legal under both Syrian law and international law. 

“This marriage is OK,” NaAmni said. “Germany is not able, and it’s not possible, to decide about the validity of marriages all over the world, in about 150 countries. So, I have to accept that this marriage, this contract, is OK.” 

Read more: The refugee crisis is turning more girls into child brides

A group of German lawmakers is worried that this court case might open the door to legal underage marriage. New legislation written by Stephan Harbarth, a member of the German parliament from the Christian Democratic Union, would ban all marriages for people under 18. 

Harbarth told me this should be a simple, straightforward issue. The problem is clear, he said, when you look at some of the legal documents from countries like Syria, where the civil war has pushed many young girls into marriage. 

“They need consent, but not the consent, for example, of their mother. They need consent of the father,” Harbarth said. 

“In reality, it’s not the girl herself, but it is the decision of the family. And we want to make sure that everyone is entitled to decide whom he or she wants to marry. That’s the decision of each individual and not the decision of a family or of a clan.” 

There is a great of denial at work here, says Bedawi. When she wrote her first article about the issue of child marriage, she says the reaction from her own immigrant community was almost entirely negative. 

“People responded on Facebook by saying that there are no forced marriages in the Yazidi community, and that domestic violence doesn’t exist,” she says. “But one small sign of hope is that some younger people are starting to talk about it more openly.” 

Frank Hessenland contributed to this report. 


From PRI's The World ©2016 PRI