Every year, about 15 million girls are forced into marriage by their parents, often as young as eight or 10 years old. Often, they are sexually or physically abused. Many die in childbirth, their bodies too young to handle the stress of pregnancy and birth. And at current rates, about 1.2 billion more girls will be similarly married off before 2050 — unless something is done to stop it.
Those numbers, reported last year by the International Center for Research on Women, set off alarms and led to the adoption of a U.N. resolution to declare such marriages a human rights violation. Now the Netherlands is doing something more: working to make such marriages illegal and to void any such existing marriages among the influx of new refugees.
Under current law, girls in the Netherlands can only marry once they reach the age of 17. But in Syria, where most of the refugees are coming from, the marriage age for girls begins “when they physically become women” — around the age of 13. Already, 34 of these child brides — about three per week — have arrived since January, 2014according to Dutch authorities. With 22 more expected in the near future, they are hoping to release them from their bondage.
As a first step, Parliament has now accelerated a proposed change in the marriage laws, which currently recognize marriages by foreign residents if those marriages were legal in the land of origin — even if they would not have been legal if performed in the Netherlands. On October 6, the Dutch Senate agreed to revise the law, making marriages by anyone under the age of 18 illegal, and invalidating the marriage of a minor even if performed legally elsewhere. Polygamous marriages, however, will still be recognized under certain conditions. The changes are scheduled to go into effect in January, 2016.
According to Save the Children and other organizations, many of these child marriages have taken place only recently as families flee Syria, often in refugee camps in Lebanon or Jordan where reports indicate child marriage ratesare double Syria’s regular rate. Some of these marriages may have been arranged in order to improve a family’s prospects of asylum in Europe under family unification laws, which would allow a man to bring his bride, and she, in turn, her own family. In other cases, experts say, parents believe that marrying off a daughter will protect her from sexual harassment by strangers in the asylum centers. And yet other girls, victims of rape in the centers, are forced by their parents to marry their rapists to protect “family honor.” But whatever the reason, these young girls, many of whom are reportedly being sexually abused by their much-older husbands, are often emotionally traumatized and suffer severe depression.
Such marriages are also not limited to refugees. There have long been reports of child marriages taking place among the families of Dutch immigrants, who organize their children’s weddings in their lands of origin. Yet current laws have made it impossible for Dutch officials to do more than stand by and shake their heads. Intervention is possible only if the girls specifically ask for help — unlikely among migrants, who generally don’t know that help is available. Even Dutch-born girls are usually hesitant to seek help, aware that they could face serious repercussions: Refusing to comply with an arranged marriage, or efforts to leave one, can result in an “honor killing.”
To make it easier, at least among asylum-seekers, appropriate authorities now contact every minor who arrives, and will investigate any child bride cases, explained Attje Kuiken, a member of the Dutch Labor Party (Partij van de Arbeid). “Girls who are already in the Netherlands and seek help will be placed in foster care, where they can get the protection and care that they need,” she said. Even so, she added, “we are aware of the risk of honor killings, and so have a specialized team focusing on that issue.”
The revised marriage law isn’t entirely new. According to Kuiken, discussions on the issue date as far back as 1989, and in the slow-moving pace of the Dutch Parliament, “the process of change started in 2012.” But when a September RTV news investigation revealed the number of child brides being recorded by the Dutch Immigration and Naturalization Service, officials snapped to attention, voting in the new law within days.
“We absolutely must protect these girls, who are sometimes just 13 or 14 years old,” said Christian Democrat member Peter Oskam, who serves on the country’s Security and Justice Commission. “So it is certainly good that the law has been adopted, but it took far too long.”
Still, with January still months away, dozens of girls remain at risk in the meantime. Further complicating matters is the question of what to do with young brides now en route to the Netherlands to join husbands who have already arrived: Turning them away, as Secretary for Security and Justice Klaas Dijkhoff has himself stated, would abandon these girls to the dangerous regions of Syria and Iraq.
Even so, noted Attje Kuiken, “we have to make sure that these young girls will no longer be victimized in forced marriages. It is crucial that the European Union work together to stop the practice of child brides, not only in the Netherlands, but throughout Europe and the world.”