For Syrian refugee families in Turkey, early marriage is seen as a pathway to security though the outcome is not always as hoped.
When the war came to Syria, even families who opposed it felt they had to marry off their teenage daughters for their protection. Now, as refugees, they face the same dilemma. In neighboring countries like Turkey young girls are becoming single mothers amid an ignored child marriage epidemic.
The industrial city of Kayseri in the Anatolian region of Turkey is home to about 60,000 Syrian refugees. Photographer Özge Sebzeci recently spent time documenting a story she says is largely unknown in her native Turkey—the prevalence of marriage and divorce among Syrian refugee children.
The dress worn by a 14 year-old bride to is laid out after her wedding day to an 18 year-old. Sebzeci attended the wedding but was not allowed to take pictures. “[The bride’s] eyes were full of emotion,” Sebzeci recalls. “She was definitely afraid and surprised and trying to understand why all of the attention was on her. She was smiling sometimes as well. It was a powerful moment.”
Photograph by Özge Sebzeci
The reasons why families consent to early marriage range from practicality—marrying off their daughters can ease a financial burden—to a desire to protect their honor from men outside of the community who might take advantage of them.
In one instance, a young bride who had lost her father in the war told Sebzeci: “If my father was alive he would have never given permission,” but her mother succumbed to pressure from suitors.
The legal age of marriage in Turkey is 18, or 17 with parental consent. In exceptional circumstances, people can marry at 16, subject to court approval. Religious marriages at ages younger than that still exist at different levels throughout the country as “a known secret,” Sebzeci says. These pockets of acceptance might also explain a reluctance to intervene in refugee communities, perceiving the practice as part of their tradition.
“Even at weddings [the Syrian families] invite Turkish neighbors who say, ‘This bride is really young,’ but they don’t do anything,” says Sebzeci. “One of the brides went to the hospital to give birth at 15 and was taken by the police to a safe house but she didn’t speak Turkish. The police made her sign [a document] saying that she wouldn’t live with her husband until she was 18 but there is no way to police this. She goes to the station every week to say that she isn’t living with him even though she is.”
Though the girls spoke freely within the safety of their homes, Sebzeci spent more time listening than photographing. Some would not consent to being photographed without their floor-length abayas and she was not allowed to photograph wedding ceremonies. Instead, she used a metaphorical approach—sometimes showing the girls behind the curtains that were literally shielding them from view.
The key to empowering these families and their daughters to choose differently is education on the local level, including learning Turkish. “We have to think how we can help them adapt to the society,” Sebzeci says.
The woman who introduced Sebzeci to the refugee community sees herself as an activist, Sebzeci says, and tells these stories to put a stop to the practice. When she heard that a 12-year-old schoolmate of her daughter’s was being pursued by a family interested in marriage, she put her foot down. “No,” she warned. “I will tell the journalist.”
BERDAYA Program (Formal and Non-Formal Institutional Empowerment Program) Rumah KitaB conducted a workshop on module preparation of Child Marriage Prevention through Strengthening of Formal and Non Formal Institutions on January 17, 2018 in Jakarta. The workshop is supported by Australia Indonesia Partnership for Justice 2 (AIPJ2) with the aim of gaining input on six modules text. The draft module was prepared by Rumah KitaB Team under the coordination of Mrs. Lies Marcoes and six coauthors. According to the plan, this module will be used by the BERDAYA facilitator in 4 working areas of this program; Bogor, Cirebon, North Jakarta and South Sulawesi.
The workshop was attended by staff of BERDAYA, Rumah KitaB and resource persons representing various institutions, including Mr. Adib Machrus, Head of KUA Development and Sakinah Family Ministry of Religious Affairs, Mrs. Rohika from the Ministry of Women Empowerment and Child Protection, Dr. Nur Rofiah from Alimat / KUPI (Indonesian Congress of Women Scholars), Mr. Mohammad Noor from Cilegon Religious Court, Mrs. Dani from Rahima, Mr. Marzuki Wahid from Fahmina and Irene Isnandjaja, representative of DFAT Australia. The total number of participants is about 20 people.
In the introduction, Lies Marcoes explains the background of the BERDAYA program activities and their relevance to the preparation of this module and the training that will be carried out using this module. Research of Rumah KitaB in 2014-2016 shows the relationship between child marriage with the weakening of men’s economic role due to changes in living space, loss of men’s access to resources, especially work and land. “The demand for female labor (wife) does not necessarily change the status of the role of the man (husband) as the head of the family. At the same time, men lose their authority and they reinforce their status with moral guard roles, “Mrs. Lies said in her presentation. “The government has tried to overcome the marriage of children, but the role of officials such as KUA and PA become more severe because the encouragement of the practice of child marriage comes from men who lost their economic role, but is getting tighter in maintaining the traditional morale in which they still have a role. This is reinforced by the changing landscape of religious authorities that tend to be more puritanical. The survey on child marriage acceptance index in Probolinggo and Sumenep, East Java (2017) organized by Rumah KitaB and UNICEF shows the attitude of men who are more accepting of child marriage practices.
On the situation, the training curriculum was developed with a framework to strengthen institutions that work in the prevention of child marriage through the provision of an understanding of the facts of child marriage, the rights of children agreed upon in the Child Protection Act, and text-reading methodologies that have the opportunity to reinterpret domination father in imposing child marriage. This activity also seeks to explain that the fulfillment of children’s rights and obedience to positive law is a way of avoiding legal dualism which has been a problem in the issue of child marriage. This legal dualism has resulted in many marriage practices that are illegal on positive law viewpoint but are considered valid by interpretation.
The workshop produced a curriculum flow that absorbed all proposals from the participants to be followed up by rewrites in several chapters or revisions for chapters considered to be sufficient. The BERDAYA program will pilot this training module in March 2018 following the revision process as recommended by the workshop. [Lies Marcoes / Seto Hidayat]
In Nepal, a traditional belief about the impurity of menstrual blood means women and girls are banished to makeshift huts.
Photographer Poulomi Basu’s mother, a widow, does not wear the color red. In India, the country of Basu’s birth, red symbolizes both purity and sin and is also used to mark auspicious occasions. Traditional Hindu culture dictates widows dress only in saris made of white—the hue of mourning and death—for the rest of their lives. Further, they are forbidden from attending celebratory events or remarrying.
In the 16 years since her father’s death, 33-year-old Basu has convinced her mother to replace her white saris with brighter cloth, yet she still won’t touch red or vibrant pinks. Basu has managed to turn the tide of an oppressive tradition in the life of one of the most important people in her world; her mother. “Start one by one,” says Basu of her approach to affecting change.
“As I grew up, I realized how customs and traditions are used as forces to bring women to subservience and control them,” and this includes the use of color, she says.
With her series, “A Ritual of Exile,” Basu studies red as related to the blood of menstruation. Her long-term goal is to help end the entrenched Hindu practice of Chaupadi, which pushes menstruating women into isolation and into a normalized cycle of violence perpetuated by custom, tradition, and religion.
Photographed in neighboring Nepal, the work reveals the extreme situations women in rural regions endure for one week each month over the 35-45 years of their menstrual cycle. Viewed as unclean, untouchable, and having the power to bestow calamity upon people, livestock, and the land when bleeding, women are banished from their homes. Some stay in nearby sheds, while others must travel 10-15 minutes away from home on foot through thick forests to small secluded huts. While banished the women face, and frequently die from, brutally hot temperatures, asphyxiation from fires lit to keep warm during winter, the venom of cobra snakes, and rape.
Basu began her ongoing project in 2013, visiting Nepal an average of two weeks per year. Access is difficult, often depending on gatekeepers like husbands, mother-in-laws, school teachers, and the temporarily ostracized women. Often walking six to eight hours over mountainous terrain to reach the villages where Chaupadi takes place, Basu has had time to reflect. “I could not believe how much pain was within that beauty and that landscape we associate with freedom and adventure and escape,” she explains. For Basu, the heightened and turbulent countryside of Nepal—whether it’s a brilliant sky filled with stars or the clouds of a brewing storm—has come to symbolize the pain women are experiencing there.
“My work is very quiet because a lot of [it] is about the silent struggles and silent protests” that come with oppression of women in a patriarchal society, Basu notes.
The story of Lakshmi, a woman in her mid-30s with three children comes to Basu’s mind. Her husband left five years ago and has never returned. Still, Lakshmi dutifully goes into exile while bleeding. Her movements are enforced by her mother-in-law. Lakshmi is obligated to bring her children with her into the remote wilderness.
Next, she tells the story of a school teacher, one of the only women she met in in the villages who does not practice Chaupadi. When her best friend died after being raped in exile, her husband supported her decision to abandon the tradition. In the grand scheme of things, says Basu, this is an uplifting moment in the story of Chaupadi.
One of her favorite images shows Chandra Tiruva, 34, and her child, Madan, 2, sharing a hut with Mangu Bika, 14. The women, observing Chaupadi at the same time, are sleeping closely together. It’s such a tender moment,” says Basu. “Even within their exile the child is reaching out for the mother’s breast. It’s a moment of peace and love within that space.”
Basu knows the feeling of having others make decisions for her and the anger and frustration it evokes. “I was not allowed to enter a kitchen when my period started and religious festivities were off limits every time I bled,” she recalls.
She is also familiar with the strength of a mother who will do all she can to help a daughter break a cycle of misery and injustice. After her father died, Basu’s conservative older brother became the head of the household. Basu decided to leave home, and with unexpected financial help and support from her mother, relocated to Bombay. This proved to be a major catalyst for the life free from traditional constraints she now leads. “Not many people have the choice I did,” admits Basu. “If [my mother] had cried and broken down and said I couldn’t go, I wouldn’t have left.”
In the images she makes, Basu recognizes the emotional connection she draws between her own experiences and the mothers who instinctually protect their children in the face of extreme circumstances.
Regardless of the fact that Chaupadi was declared illegal by Nepal’s Supreme Court in 2005, the women Basu photographs have been trained to accept the tradition without complaint. Yet keeping quiet doesn’t mean they’ve accepted Chaupadi for their daughters. A few have clandestinely said to Basu, “Won’t you take my daughter? Take her to the city with you. Just take her and run.”
The road to revolution is not easy, Basu says.
AIPJ2, MAKASSAR – Child marriage is beyond a statistical issue. The high number of child marriages in Indonesia, which reached 23 percent of all marriages in 2015 (according to the Indonesian Central Bureau of Statistics and UNICEF) also reflects the loss of opportunities for young women in maximising their potential. Poverty and cultural practices are several factors that contribute to the high number of child marriages, including in Tamamaung and Sinrijala, Panakkukang District, Makassar.
The focus of the dialogue held on 1 November 2017 between community members, government representatives and non-formal institutions with Dr. Sharman Stone, Australian Ambassador for Women and Girls , was child marriage prevention. Australia Indonesia Partnership for Justice 2 (AIPJ2) partners, Lies Marcoes and a team from Rumah Kita Bersama (Rumah KitaB), facilitated the discussion including findings from on-the-ground research.
While most child marriage cases in village areas result from poverty (including low levels of education) and cultural practices, Rumah KitaB’s study also finds other factors involved for urban areas, such as limited space in which to interact and the rising conservative value associated with shame. “…This leads parents to put more pressure on girls to get married. Pregnant or not, girls are forced to marry,” said Nurhady Sirimorok, a researcher with Rumah KitaB.
According to Dr. Stone, the Government of Australia supports the lives of children born from early marriages. Nevertheless, Dr. Stone agrees that unwanted pregnancies are challenging for society, especially for girls who have to drop out of school and face the challenge of getting a decent job.
The Government of Indonesia has adopted a minimum age for marriage based on Law no. 1/1974, article 6, which is 16 and 19 years old for women and men respectively. But this does not stop the act of falsifying ages to marry children. A former judge at the religious court in Makassar, Ibu Harijah, said that religious courts are often pressured by parents to provide dispensation to enable the family to avoid public shaming. This situation gives the impression of legal “justification” of child-age marriage.
The issue of birth certificates is also a driving force for the marriage of pregnant teenage girls. One lesson that can be drawn from Australia’s experience is how teenage girls are less stigmatised as single parents now than they were in the past, and receive child support from the government. But as much as this is the case, the family also plays an important role in maximising the potential of teenage girls. “We want all women to have an equal opportunity,” said Dr. Stone.
With various advocacy agencies, efforts to prevent child marriage begin with parenting skills, enrolling dropout children in non-formal education programs, and conducting regular meetings with community members. These agencies also provide skill-enriching activities to improve standard of living. Marketing programs to boost the sale of merchandise created by the girls are also important since they find it difficult to find buyers themselves.
At the end of the discussion, Dr. Stone concluded that differences and similarities related to the situation in Indonesia and Australia make cooperation in prevention very critical. Dr. Stone also appreciated the efforts of religious, cultural, non-formal and local government leaders in Makassar to address the issue.