Lawyer Nursyahbani receives honorary doctorate from SOAS University of London

Indonesian lawyer and human rights activist Nursyahbani Katjasungkana has received an honorary doctorate from the SOAS University of London for her role in championing human rights.

SOAS director Valerie Amos personally bestowed the recognition to Nursyahbani, who had “fought for and gained recognition women’s right in Indonesia”.

During her speech, Nursyahbani told the audience attending the university’s graduation ceremony on Wednesday to join the fight against human rights violations.

“Looking back on my 40 years of human rights activities, my advice to you is this: Be changemakers, show imagination, fight against the greatest human rights violations to all […] Don’t accept the world as it is, dream about what the world could be and then help make it happen,” she said.

Nursyahbani served as commissioner of the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Ham) between 1998 and 2004, and the first secretary-general of the Indonesia Women’s Coalition for Justice and Democracy (KPI), which she also cofounded. She held the position from 1998 to 2003.

She was a member of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) from 1999 to 2004 and was a House of Representatives (DPR) member from 2004 to 2009.

The SOAS University of London also honored other figures in the fields of law, literature, journalism and finance, including journalist Lindsey Hilsum; scholar, former banker and anticorruption campaigner Muhammad Sanusi II; and editor, broadcaster and critic, Margaret Busby. (dmr)



Screening and Discussion of the Film “Memecah Kawin Bocah” by UMN Juice

On November 12, 2018, Rumah KitaB received an invitation from student community of Multimedia Nusantara  University: UMN Journalism Center (UMN Juice) to attend the screening and discussion of the film “Memecah Kawin Bocah”. The film produced by Rumah KitaB in 2016 was one of the selected films played in UMN Juice’s monthly screening film, in addition to the film “Ojek Lusi”, which tells about ojek around the Sidoarjo Mud, which is one of the film produced by UMN students.

The event which was attended by around 25 students was opened with the screening of the film “Memecah Kawin Bocah” and continued with a discussion session by representatives of Rumah KitaB, Fadilla Putri, and Adit from UMN Juice as moderators. Fadilla convey the background of the film. The film is a part of the RK research which lasted for two years. This is a challenge to “simplify” the issue of child marriage that is so complex into the short film.

Fadilla also explains why choosing the issue of child marriage for this movie. Besides as a part of the RK advocacy since 2014, another reason to make this film is that child marriage is still a concern in Indonesia. The child marriage data shows that Indonesia is ranked 7th in the world and 2nd in Southeast Asia. Moreover, with the rise of the fundamentalist movement lately, many have encouraged teenagers and young people to get married early to avoid adultery. In fact, marriage that has not yet reached maturity could have a negative impact on children, especially girls.

Regarding the technique of making films, it can be said that it is not easy. Starting from the selection of informants that have good articulation, making strategic interview questions, and involving child marriages survivor, all of them need extra work to fulfill the principles of protection for children and women. Luckily in the making process, RK was assisted by friends from Communicaption who provided input regarding the storyline and the production process.

The screening of the film “Memecah Kawin Bocah” at UMN is also one of the forms of RK advocacy to a wider audience, moreover the majority of the audience are students. It has to be admitted that the dissemination of this film is still in a limited circle, that is, a group that indeed both understand the dangers of child marriage. By watching and discussing this film with the students, it’s expected that the fellow students have new knowledge related to this dangerous practice. [Dilla]

Florida bans child marriage as it raises minimum age to 17

The bill was inspired by Sherry Johnson, who was forced to marry a church deacon aged 11


Florida has banned marriage for children under 17, after a campaign by a woman who was forced to marry her rapist when she was just 11-years-old.

Sherry Johnson watched from the gallery as the state legislature voted 109-1 to pass a bill removing exemptions allowing boys and girls of any age to marry if a pregnancy was involved.

“My heart is happy,” she said afterward. “My goal was to protect our children and I feel like my mission has been accomplished. This is not about me. I survived.”

Republican Governor Rick Scott has indicated he will sign the new bill after the House and Senate reached a compromise on its terms.

Florida currently allows children of any age to marry if a pregnancy is involved and a judge approves. Children aged 16 and 17 can marry with the consent or both sets of parents.

In one case a man in his 90s was able to marry a girl aged 16 or 17 and there were several cases of girls marrying men more than twice their age.

An analysis of state statistics revealed 1,828 marriage licenses involving a minor were issued between 2012 and 2016. They included one 13-year-old, seven 14-year-olds and 29 15-year-olds.

The new bill bans marriage for anyone under 17 and prevents 17 year-olds marrying people more than two years older and without parental consent.

The only person to vote against the bill, Republican Representative George Moraitis, had described current law as “very good”.

He added: “I don’t want the message to be that it’s better to not get married.”

After the bill was passed, Sherry Johnson was described as “the star” by a sponsor of the bill, Republican Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto.

Ms Johnson was nine when she was raped by a church deacon, 10 when she gave birth to his child and 11 when she got married to him 47 years ago.

She said her church pressured her mother to consent to the marriage and a judge approved it. Ms Johnson ended up having five more children with her husband before she broke free of the marriage.

“I feel the whole system failed me,” Johnson told CBS News. She said that “it would have changed my life” if the child marriage had been banned at the time.

“I would have been a single mother and I think would have done well,” she added.

Child marriage is a major issue in the US. Most states have a minimum age of 18 but every state has “loopholes” allowing unions if there is parental consent or pregnancy.

Last year it emerged that more than 200,000 children as young as 10 and 11 got married in the US between 2000 and 2015.

In the last two years Virginia, Texas, Kentucky and New York have all voted to ban or limit child marriage.


Child Marriage: Open Communication, Holistic Approach Needed to Change Mindsets

Jakarta. In many parts of rural Indonesia where child marriage is still considered a viable option, it remains a challenge to establish open communication between those involved, which is crucial to changing mindsets and ending the practice.

For Dwi Ayu Pratiwi, who saw many of her classmates getting married at a young age, changing parents’ mindsets is key to stopping child marriage.

However, that in itself is no easy task, especially when strong cultural norms on adult-child relations favor the former. To avoid being labeled disobedient, many children refrain from voicing their doubts or disagreement, even when it comes to crucial decisions.

“Most of the time, parents tell us that we must not be disobedient or confrontational. But I think it’s better to be engaged in a discussion, so the child can be more open and communicative with her parents,” Dwi told the Jakarta Globe in a recent interview.

A study found that 32 percent of married women between the ages of 20 and 24 in her village in Sukabumi district, West Java, got married before they were 18 years old.

According to an article based on the study, published in January 2016 in Jurnal Perempuan, Indonesia’s first feminist academic journal, “this is slightly higher than the provincial data, which stood at 26 percent in 2015. It is higher compared with the national data on marriage before 18, which is 23 percent.”

The study formed part of ongoing doctoral research by the Van Vollenhoven Institute at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

The study looked at child marriage in Sukabumi and the role of girls’ agency towards parents or elders in such situations and highlighted that gender and age are “crosscutting hierarchies with girls at the most powerless side of the equation.”

“In the village, your silence is perceived as agreement … Sometimes young girls may be afraid of being labeled disobedient, or they lack good communication skills to discuss the matter with their parents,” said Navita Hani, field coordinator at the Java Village Foundation, which was established in 2007 to focus on improving the lives of vulnerable communities, especially women and young people, in West Java.

Lack of Bargaining Power

According to Navita, a strong tradition of child marriage and a deeply entrenched patriarchal culture contribute to the high prevalence of child marriage in Dwi’s village.

“The women are not in a position to bargain when they get married,” Navita said.

In addition, many villagers also consider marriage the best option to avoid extramarital sex, or zina.

Since many girls enter into religious marriages, or nikah siri, such unions are not registered with the government. A comparison between the 2016 research findings and official data shows that child marriages are often unreported.

Indonesia’s 1974 Marriage Law sets the legal marriageable age at 21, but with parental consent girls as young as 16 are allowed to marry, whereas the minimum age for boys is 19. However, there is an exemption allowing girls as young as 13 to legally marry with parental consent and judicial approval.

According to the 2016 article, which featured six of 28 qualitative case studies, some girls were only 14 years old when they got married.

The case studies showed that various factors, including religion, poverty and pressure from parents and neighbors, contribute to the continuing practice.

“Besides parents, there’s also pressure from the community. In some cases, the parents feel they have to marry off their girls or boys to avoid gossip by neighbors, or the fear of zina,” Java Village Foundation chairwoman Mies Grijns told the Jakarta Globe. Grijns is also an external doctoral researcher at the Van Vollenhoven Institute.


Navita said the pursuit of education is not encouraged in the village and that most respondents in the case studies either did not complete primary school, or ended their education at that stage.

“Many parents don’t consider education as important. They think that even without education, their kids can still go to work and their daughters can be married off,” Navita said.

Dwi, who is now 19 years old, told the Jakarta Globe that there were fewer girls in her class when she entered middle school compared with when she was in primary school. She added that there were even fewer by the time she entered high school.

“[Our] parents think, why should we go to school for so long? Especially girls. At the end of the day, won’t we just spend time in the kitchen anyway?” Dwi said.

As part of its work in the village, the Java Village Foundation recognizes that youth empowerment is crucial to resolving some of the ongoing issues and that this would also change people’s mindsets, which is key to ending the practice of child marriage.

The Java Village Foundation plans to launch a learning center in Dwi’s village later this year to empower and support the local youth – those between the ages of 12 and 24 – and encourage them to actively participate in the community.

In preparation for the program launch, the foundation has been holding monthly meetings and discussions, and it is currently creating training courses that will form part of the learning center’s regular activities.

Navita said the meetings address youth-related issues, including reproductive health, drugs and bullying.

“By involving the youth, the learning center aims to foster a sense of ownership in the community and create a support system that respects children’s rights,” she said.

She added that the village youth has been enthusiastic about the program, a sentiment echoed by Dwi.

“The learning center can guide us through training, which will be important to shape our skills and help us find work later,” Dwi said.

Social Engagement

However, there is not one single solution to ending child marriage, Grijns said.

“It really needs to be contextualized. Listening to adolescents is a crucial step, but there are many more actors that deal with child marriage,” she said.

As a small foundation, Java Village carries out its mission through cooperation with civil society, including teachers, youth leaders, the village administration and staff at the local community health center, or puskesmas.

The foundation is also planning to engage village officials and religious leaders in the community to raise collective awareness of the issue of child marriage.

“There’s a strong religious tradition in the village, and religious figures have the power to legitimize child marriage, so that’s one of the challenges we plan to tackle by engaging these figures,” Navita said.


Qiwamah and Wilayah: Equality in the Muslim Family

Musawah has undertaken a groundbreaking, multi-faceted knowledge building initiative on male authority in Muslim legal tradition.

The five-year Knowledge Building Initiative on Qiwamah and Wilayah focuses on the concepts of qiwamah and wilayah, which are commonly understood as sanctioning men’s authority over women. As interpreted and constructed in Muslim legal tradition, and as applied in modern laws and practices, these concepts play a central role in institutionalising, justifying and sustaining a patriarchal model of families in Muslim contexts. In Muslim legal tradition, marriage presumes an exchange: the wife’s obedience and submission (tamkin) in return for maintenance (nafaqah) and protection from the husband.

This theoretical relationship, which still underlies many family law provisions in our contexts as Muslims today, results in inequality in matters such as financial security, right to divorce, custody and guardianship, choice and consent in marriage, sexual and reproductive health and rights, inheritance and nationality laws.

This inequality is at odds with the underlying ethical principles of Islamic as articulated in the Qur’an. It also clashes with contemporary notions of Islamic and human rights principles, and with the reality that men are often unable or unwilling to protect and provide for their families.

It’s time to recognise that women often serve as the providers for and protectors of their families.

In order to campaign and advocate for laws and practices that promote equality and justice in Muslim families, we need new knowledge and perspectives on qiwamah and wilayah.

This initiative seeks to show how laws based on outdated interpretations of these concepts, which place women under male authority, no longer reflect the justice of Islam. Other interpretations are both possible and more in line with human rights principles and contemporary lived realities.

A set of background papers commissioned for this initiative has been published as Men in Charge? Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition, edited by Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Mulki Al-Sharmani and Jana Rumminger (OneWorld 2015).

Through the Global Life Stories Project component of the initiative, teams of researchers and activists in 10 countries (Bangladesh, Canada, Egypt, Gambia, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Philippines, and the United Kingdom) have been documenting women’s life stories to better understand women’s experiences with qiwamah and wilayah. The methodology and some initial findings are presented in a chapter of Men in Charge?


Q&A: What you need to know about sharia in Aceh

The latest news coming from Aceh is hardly comforting for foreign tourists and investors looking to spend their time and money in the province: A Christian couple were publicly flogged after being found guilty of using a children’s game for gambling, which is a crime under sharia.

Local officials claimed the Christians had the option of being prosecuted under the nation’s Criminal Code, but they willingly chose sharia. So they took eight and seven lashes in exchange for six and seven months’ imprisonment, respectively.

Human rights activists doubt such a claim, saying non-Muslim offenders are mostly deprived of legal assistance and thus pressured to be tried under sharia.

The news about the flogging of the couple, identified as David Silitonga, 61, and Tjia Nyu Hwa, 45, is by no means the first of its kind. At least five non-Muslims in Aceh have been caned for breaching Aceh’s jinayat (Islamic criminal law), which was fully implemented about three years ago.

Sharia in Aceh has been controversial ever since it was first introduced shortly after the downfall of Soeharto in 1998, when Jakarta was struggling to cope with an armed insurgency there. But what type of sharia is implemented in Aceh? And how does a sharia-based legal system work there?

Below are a few things you need to know about the legal system.

Terpidana pelanggar hukum Syariat Islam menjalani uqubat (hukuman) cambuk di Banda Aceh, Aceh, Senin (11/9). Mahkamah syariah Kota Banda Aceh menvonis 10 hingga 28 kali cambuk dengan menggunakan rotan setelah dipotong masa tahanan karena melanggar Qanun (peraturan daerah) Nomor 6/2014 tentang hukum jinayat. (Antara/Irwansyah Putra)

When did Aceh implement sharia, and why?

Aceh was once a major Islamic sultanate in Southeast Asia. Islamic values, therefore, are incorporated in Aceh’s hukum adat (customary law). The history of sharia in modern Aceh, however, goes back to the early days of the Reform Era, when Jakarta decided to grant the province a special status.

The conventional wisdom is that sharia in Aceh was a concession given by Jakarta under former president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid” to Acehnese leaders to weaken the armed insurgency led by the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

It is no surprise that GAM leaders initially rejected the formalization of sharia on the grounds that Islam has long been an integral part of Aceh’s culture, and that their struggle was driven more by political grievances than religious zeal. Only after a peace agreement was signed by Jakarta and GAM leaders in Helsinki, Finland, in 2005 did GAM accept the implementation of sharia law.

For GAM, sharia in Aceh was a gift from Jakarta, served on a silver platter for the Acehnese people. “The gift [of sharia] was placed at our parliament’s door,” Malik Mahmud, a former GAM prime minister, told BBC Indonesia.

Under the 1999 law on Aceh’s status as a special region, coupled with the 2001 law on special autonomy for Aceh and Papua, Aceh was the only region in the country given the authority to formally implement sharia law.

However, only in 2003 did Aceh formally introduce sharia as the law of the land through the enactment of three bylaws banning the consumption of alcohol, gambling and khalwat (dating in secluded places).

A year earlier, Aceh established Dinas Syariat Islam (Sharia Agency). The agency is tasked with coordinating three core sharia institutions: Mahkamah Syariah (Sharia Courts), Majelis Permusyawaratan Ulama (Ulema Consultation Council) and the Wilayatul Hisba (Sharia Police).

In 2009, Aceh’s councillors enacted their first fully pledged qanun jinayat, which included new jarimah (crimes) such as adultery and homosexuality. The bylaw stipulated that adulterers could be sentenced to death by stoning. In 2014, the councillors revised the 2009 jinayat, scrapping the provision on stoning.

The 2014 jinayat took effect in October 2015.

Helsinki Cathedral, also known as the St. Nicholas Cathedral, is a distinctive landmark of the Finland’s capital. The historic Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the government of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) was signed on Aug. 15, 2005 in Helsinki. (Shutterstock/File)

What is khalwat? And how harsh is Aceh’s sharia law? 

It is a crime for a man and a woman who are not married to be in a secluded place together in Aceh. This is called khalwat and it is punishable by up to nine lashes, a fine of 150 grams of gold or 15 months’ imprisonment.

Alongside khalwat, maysir (gambling) and khamar (consuming alcohol) are also illegal under sharia.

Under the 2014 jinayat, zina (adultery and pre-marital sex), liwath (gay sex), musahaqah (lesbianism) and qadzaf (falsely accusing other people of adultery) are also classified as crimes. Those found guilty of such crimes could face up to 100 lashes or 1,000 grams of gold or 100 months in prison.

In countries where sharia is the law of the land such as Saudi Arabia and Brunei Darussalam, adultery and homosexuality are punishable by death.

According to historian Michel Feener, who has conducted extensive research on Aceh, the implementation of sharia was never driven by a “nostalgic utopian yearning for a return to seventh-century Arabia”.

In his 2013 paper, “Social Engineering Through Sharia: Islamic Law and State-Directed Da’wa in Contemporary Aceh”, Feener argues that sharia in Aceh is more of a “social engineering” attempt to rebuild Aceh following the Indonesian Military-GAM conflict and the 2004 tsunami that hit the region.

To support his argument, he cited the fact that only a few jinayat cases were handled by sharia courts each year. The Sharia Agency, he said, dakwah (campaigned) more than it focused on law enforcement. His study, however, did not examine the implementation of sharia after the enactment of the 2014 jinayat.

Does Aceh’s sharia apply to non-Muslims?

It does, but only for crimes that are not regulated under the Criminal Code such as khalwat, premarital sex or homosexuality. Non-Muslim offenders, however, could be prosecuted under sharia if they are willing to do so (the legal term for this is menundukan diri, which loosely translates to “submitting”).

Female dancers – who perform the Bines dance, a traditional dance from Gayo, Aceh –take a selfie during the event. JP/Hotli Simanjuntak (JP/Hotli Simanjuntak)

Is Aceh’s sharia legal? And can it be repealed?

Aceh’s lawmakers believe it is legal, as the 2001 law on Aceh’s autonomy and the 2006 law on Aceh’s administration, they claim, clearly gives the province the authority to devise its own legislation.

But human rights activists disagree, saying the bylaws enacted by Aceh’s council should not contradict the 1945 Constitution and national laws. They argue that the caning punishment goes against the 1999 law on human rights and the UN convention on torture, which Indonesia has ratified.

The adultery provision in jinayat, they say, overlaps with the morality provisions in the Criminal Code, which are also considered discriminatory. In many cases, the morality articles in jinayat tend to victimize women.

Activists grouped under the Civil Society Network for the Advocacy of Qanun Jinayat called on the government to review the Islamic bylaw and repeal it for going against the higher laws. But the Home Ministry said in 2015 that under the 2006 law on Aceh’s administration, it did not have the authority to do so and asked the activists to bring their fight to the Supreme Court.

The Institute for Criminal Justice Reform and the Solidarity for Women activist group have taken up the challenge by filing a judicial review request against jinayat at the Surpreme Court. The court, however, has suspended its examination as the House of Representatives is still deliberating revisions of the Criminal Code.

The House has said that it will pass the Criminal Code bill into law soon. The bill reportedly includes provisions criminalizing pre-marital sex and homosexuality. It is unclear how the new Criminal Code, which has become more like jinayat, will affect the implementation of jinayat. (srs/ahw)


Divorced at 15: Inside the Lives of Child Brides

For Syrian refugee families in Turkey, early marriage is seen as a pathway to security though the outcome is not always as hoped.


K., 15, is recently divorced from her 20-year-old husband. She fled to Turkey when she was 12, was engaged at 13, and got married at 14. She says she is happy to be divorced because the couple did not get along but she is not hopeful about continuing her education. She left school when she was in fourth grade when the war started in Syria.

Photograph by Özge Sebzeci

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

Girls as young as 13 are getting married in unofficial ceremonies. Sometimes these unions don’t last, leaving the girls divorced at 15 with children to raise, facing barriers to the education and opportunities that would pave the way for success in their new country. “Divorce is easy because all the husband has to do is to say ‘I divorce you’ three times,” Sebzeci says, of a law in Sunni Islam known as “triple talaq.” “The girls don’t have the rights they would otherwise have, such as inheritance and alimony.”
Up: H., 15 (right), and her 13 year-old sister share a moment at their home in Kayseri. They are originally from Aleppo and lived in a refugee camp on the border with Syria for four years.

Down: The infant son of 16 year-old Z. and her 21 year-old husband sleeps on his first day at home from the hospital. Due complications from premature birth, the newborn had to stay in the hospital for more than a month. Z. got married when she was 14.

Photograph by Özge Sebzeci
With the help of a well-connected member of the Syrian refugee community, Sebzeci interviewed girls and their mothers to understand the problem’s root. While some of these mothers had been teen brides themselves, most had not. According to the United Nations Population Fund, child marriage was significantly less common among Syrians before the war began. Some estimates now show child marriage rates to be four times higher among Syrian refugees today than among Syrians before the crisis.

İ., 20, and A., 17, with their 5-day-old baby at their home in Kayseri. The couple were engaged in Syria. 5 days later, İ. stepped onto a mine and lost his leg. He is now a day laborer at mobile phone shops or with shoemakers. They are happy that A. gave birth without complications.

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.

H. shows Sebzeci her engagement ring and dress before her engagement party. “H. asked for a teddy bear when I asked her what she wanted for her engagement,” Sebzeci says. H.’s suitor was a friend of her brother’s, who gave his hand at the wedding.

Photograph by Özge Sebzeci

“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.

M., 17, pushes her daughter in a stroller outside their home in Kayseri. M. was married when she was 14 and became pregnant shortly thereafter. Her husband left her 20 days after she gave birth to their daughter. She says he was abusive and she is relieved that he is gone but struggles to care for her child by herself. She recently started working as a pharmacy assistant and supports her family on the equivalent of $26 per week.

Photograph by Özge Sebzeci

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.”



Rohingya girls as young as 12 compelled to marry just to get food

Allocation of food rations by household means refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar are marrying off children as young as 12 to create new family circles

Young Rohingya girls who have fled Myanmar are being forced to marry when they reach Bangladesh simply to secure more food for themselves and their families.

With UN World Food Programme rations allocated by household, families are marrying off girls as young as 12 to reduce the number of mouths to feed and create new households with food quotas of their own, the Guardian has learned.

More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar since the military launched its first round of “clearance operations” in October last year. About 600,000 have been displaced since the second wave in August, which the UN has condemned as “ethnic cleansing”. Security forces have been accused of mass rape and killing.

Medics in Bangladesh say young girls have been a particular target of sexual violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

But in the camps of Cox’s Bazar, they continue to face violence in the form of early marriage, which causes physical and psychological damage.

“I wasn’t mature when I got married,” said Anwara, who fled Rakhine after the military burned her home. Aged 14, she was married within weeks of arriving in Bangladesh and has just had her first baby.

“I couldn’t understand what had happened, and got weak and didn’t eat anything. I didn’t tell anyone and no one knew I’d conceived. Girls don’t become smart till four or five years after they get their menstruation. That’s when we become strong and understand things in life and have a chance to grow tall and beautiful.

“I wish I could have spent some time without a husband and baby. Then life would have been beautiful.”

The Guardian spoke to more than a dozen teenage girls who had either been made to marry in the camps or whose parents were actively looking for husbands for them.

While early marriage is practised in Rohingya communities in Myanmar, the girls said food rations were a major factor in the decision to get married in the camps. The allocation of 25kg of rice every two weeks is based on an average family size of five, but many families are larger.

This 15-year-old girl was married to a stranger less than two months after reaching Bangladesh following clearance operations in Rakhine state. Photograph: Antolín Avezuela

Marium, 14, arrived in Bangladesh in September. She was married three weeks later. “Everything was burning in the village. As we ran out the people at the front were all shot,” she said.

“I have no father and I was a great burden on my mother so it’s better I got married. Of course if my mother had the ability to feed me I would be happy to stay single.”

Muhammad Hassen has just arranged the marriage of his 14-year-old daughter, Arafa. “We have 10 family members in total, seven daughters, and we get 25kg of rice [every two weeks]. This is not enough for a family of 10,” he said.

“Of course if I’d stayed in Rakhine I would wait to marry my daughter. I was a farmer with three acres of land. I [would have fed her] with what I have in my house or extended family and neighbours would help. Here we can’t do that.”

Arafa had not yet met her husband – who was “very much older than me, about 20” – but she had seen him in the distance and believed he was an “honourable man”.

“I hope it will be good being a wife,” she said. “In my house I do everything for my parents and my young sisters, so it is my habit.”

Only one of the girls interviewed knew their husband before their wedding day, and all the girls who had already married said they knew nothing about sex.

“My parents gave me to my husband because they couldn’t afford to feed me. When I got married, I just thought my husband would feed me, I didn’t understand what he would do [in terms of intimate relations],” said Fatima, who was 12 when she got married.

Mohamad, a camp mazi – community leader – said parents don’t want to marry off their daughters, but “they need to eat”.

WFP said for the latest round of food distribution it had increased its rations for families of more than eight people. A spokesperson initially said the link between child marriage and rations was unlikely. But after hearing the Guardian’s findings, the organisation said it would follow up on the concerns with other UN agencies involved in child protection.

Habibur Rahman, programme head at Bangladesh charity Brac, who works with refugee families, said girls being married off for food was “a deep concern”.

“A household with more than eight members gets two ration cards but the household with seven members is getting one card. As a result, there is a risk of child marriage as a girl child can be married off and that would mean more food per ration,” he said.

“Girls and women in the refugee camps are at especially high risk of child marriage and other forms of violence. Child marriage is already common among the Rohingya, but poverty and insecurity are pushing many displaced families to marry off their daughters even earlier. The government and NGOs must do more to address these risks and take girls into account when planning their response to this crisis.”

Lakshmi Sundaram, executive director of Girls Not Brides, said child marriage had “devastating” consequences including early pregnancy, physical and sexual violence, and an increased likelihood of poverty.

“We cannot ignore child marriage in crisis settings. Governments and NGOs need to pay special attention to the risk of child marriage when they are planning their responses to humanitarian emergencies. That means putting a special focus on safety and access to quality education for girls. It also means working with girls and women from the early stages of a crisis, so they can explain their situations first-hand,” she said.

Already married and pregnant with her first child when she fled Myanmar, this 15-year-old was widowed after her husband fell ill during their escape. Photograph: Antolín Avezuela

Girls and their families said it was easier for them to get married in Bangladesh than in Myanmar. The legal age for girls to wed in Bangladesh is 18, but the country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world.

For some parents the lax enforcement of marriage laws in Bangladesh is an opportunity. Rosia, 15, said she was married after a woman came to her family’s shelter and suggested if they could not afford to feed Rosia they should marry her to her son. “If my parents agreed, I had to agree,” she said.

But the marriage was a scam. Two months after the wedding it emerged the man was not the woman’s son and started demanding money from the family. When they were unable to pay he disappeared.

“I have one small boy and six girls. In [Myanmar], under-18 marriage is not allowed and we needed military permission and that cost a great deal of money. This was a great opportunity – a chance not available in [Myanmar],” says her father, Muhammed.

Muhammed is determined to find husbands for all his daughters. “Early marriage is not good according to my knowledge – but it is good for me. Because I cannot feed them, one by one I will have to give them husbands.”

Meanwhile, a panel of UN women’s rights experts has responded to mounting evidence that national security forces have committed acts of sexual violence against Rohingya women by asking the Myanmar government to report cases within six months.

The request, known as an exceptional report, is only the fourth of its kind since the UN committee on the elimination of discrimination against women held its first session in 1982.

“We are very cautious and we apply very strict criteria when we decide to go that route, and usually we have different ways of following up on a dialogue,” said committee member Nahla Haidar. “We have had reports of sexual violence, rape, torture, mutilation that women were subjected to. We really felt compelled.”

Such requests occur only in response to “grave and systematic violations”, said Haidar, who added: “We never abuse this procedure.”

  • Some names have been changed to protect identities. Fiona MacGregor travelled with Girls Not Brides. Additional reporting by Rebecca Ratcliffe







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Could Aung San Suu Kyi face Rohingya genocide charges?

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, is determined that the perpetrators of the horrors committed against the Rohingya face justice.

He’s the head of the UN’s watchdog for human rights across the world, so his opinions carry weight.

It could go right to the top – he doesn’t rule out the possibility that civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the head of the armed forces Gen Aung Min Hlaing, could find themselves in the dock on genocide charges some time in the future.

Earlier this month, Mr Zeid told the UN Human Rights Council that the widespread and systematic nature of the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar (also called Burma) meant that genocide could not be ruled out.

“Given the scale of the military operation, clearly these would have to be decisions taken at a high level,” said the high commissioner, when we met at the UN headquarters in Geneva for BBC Panorama.

That said, genocide is one of those words that gets bandied about a lot. It sounds terrible – the so-called “crime of crimes”. Very few people have ever been convicted of it.

The crime was defined after the Holocaust. Member countries of the newly founded United Nations signed a convention, defining genocide as acts committed with intent to destroy a particular group.

It is not Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein’s job to prove acts of genocide have been committed – only a court can do that. But he has called for an international criminal investigation into the perpetrators of what he has called the “shockingly brutal attacks” against the Muslim ethnic group who are mainly from northern Rakhine in Myanmar.

But the high commissioner recognised it would be a tough case to make: “For obvious reasons, if you’re planning to commit genocide you don’t commit it to paper and you don’t provide instructions.”

“The thresholds for proof are high,” he said. “But it wouldn’t surprise me in the future if a court were to make such a finding on the basis of what we see.”

By the beginning of December, nearly 650,000 Rohingya – around two thirds of the entire population – had fled Myanmar after a wave of attacks led by the army that began in late August.

Hundreds of villages were burned and thousands are reported to have been killed.

There is evidence of terrible atrocities being committed: massacres, murders and mass rapes – as I heard myself when I was in the refugee camps as this crisis began.

What clearly rankles the UN human rights chief is that he had urged Ms Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, to take action to protect the Rohingya six months before the explosion of violence in August.

He said he spoke to her on the telephone when his office published a report in February documenting appalling atrocities committed during an episode of violence that began in October 2016.

“I appealed to her to bring these military operations to an end,” he told me. “I appealed to her emotional standing… to do whatever she could to bring this to a close, and to my great regret it did not seem to happen.”












Rohingya Muslims displaced from Tula Toli village in Rakhine State gave disturbing accounts

Ms Suu Kyi’s power over the army is limited, but Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein believes she should have done more to try and stop the military campaign.

He criticised her for failing to use the term “Rohingya”. “To strip their name from them is dehumanising to the point where you begin to believe that anything is possible,” he said – powerful language for a top UN official.

He thought Myanmar’s military was emboldened when the international community took no action against them after the violence in 2016. “I suppose that they then drew a conclusion that they could continue without fear,” he said.

“What we began to sense was that this was really well thought out and planned,” he told me.

The Myanmar government has said the military action was a response to terrorist attacks in August which killed 12 members of the security forces.

But BBC Panorama has gathered evidence that shows that preparations for the continued assault on the Rohingya began well before that.

We show that Myanmar had been training and arming local Buddhists. Within weeks of last year’s violence the government made an offer: “Every Rakhine national wishing to protect their state will have the chance to become part of the local armed police.”

“This was a decision made to effectively perpetrate atrocity crimes against the civilian population,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive of the human rights organisation Fortify Rights which has been investigating the build-up to this year’s violence.

That view is borne out by refugees in the vast camps in Myanmar who saw these volunteers in action, attacking their Rohingya neighbours and burning down their homes.

“They were just like the army, they had the same kind of weapons”, said Mohammed Rafique, who ran a successful business in Myanmar. “They were local boys, we knew them. When the army was burning our houses, torturing us, they were there.”












Who is burning down Rohingya villages?

Meanwhile the Rohingya were getting more vulnerable in other ways.

By the summer food shortages were widespread in north Rakhine – and the government tightened the screws. The programme has learnt that from mid-August the authorities had cut off virtually all food and other aid to north Rakhine.

And the army brought in reinforcements. On 10 August, two weeks before the militant attacks, it was reported that a battalion had been flown in.

The UN human rights representative for Myanmar was so concerned she issued a public warning, urging restraint from the Myanmar authorities.

But when Rohingya militants launched attacks on 30 police posts and an army base, the military response was huge, systematic and devastating.












Rohingya refugees tell the BBC of “house by house” killings

The BBC asked Aung San Suu Kyi and the head of the Myanmar armed forces for a response. But neither of them has replied.

Almost four months on from those attacks and Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein is concerned the repercussions of the violence are not yet over. He fears this “could just be the opening phases of something much worse”.

He worries jihadi groups could form in the huge refugee camps in Bangladesh and launch attacks in Myanmar, perhaps even targeting Buddhist temples. The result could be what he called a “confessional confrontation” – between Buddhists and Muslims.

It is a frightening thought, as the high commissioner acknowledged, but one he believes Myanmar isn’t taking seriously enough.

“I mean the stakes are so enormous,” he said. “This sort of flippant manner by which they respond to the serious concerns of the international community is really alarming.”