Families around the world that struggle to provide for their children might turn to child marriage to ease financial burdens.
In Turkey, more Syrian refugee families are marrying off their daughters to Turkish men for money to stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report.
The exclusive report released to the Independent by ECPAT, a global network dedicated to ending the sexual exploitation of children, found that families are selling their daughters as a last resort.
“We have heard of cases where Syrian families are selling their daughters to marry — either formally or informally — Turkish men,” Ezgi Yaman, secretary-general of ECPAT Turkey, told the Independent. “Sometimes to be a second or third wife of a man. This is to get rid of them. To have one less plate at the table.”
In some cases, families are selling their daughters to their landlords if they can’t afford rent, Yaman explained. The landlords then exploit the daughters for labor or sex.
ECPAT does not have data on the number of child marriages in Turkey because they are happening unofficially, and many of the marriages are religious ceremonies, not recognized under the law. The Turkish government doesn’t track child marriage or child trafficking either, Yaman said.
Syrian girls and women married unofficially are especially vulnerable to abuse because they lack rights and legal protections.
Families are not reporting their daughters’ child marriages, even if they oppose them, because they fear deportation. Nearly all refugees living in Turkey in April — 3.6 million — were estimated to have fled the Syrian civil war. Refugees are among the communities hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic as they rely on informal work in unprotected conditions, and tend to live in tight spaces where social distancing is not an option.
Turkey has the highest number of child refugees in the world who are at risk of child marriage, human trafficking, and sexual exploitation, according to the report. Sexual and domestic abuse is only increasing amid the crisis as families are under stress and forced to isolate at home.
Protecting young girls from harmful practices is even more of a challenge now that schools are closed due to COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, the report warned. At school, teachers can report issues to authorities, but now children are left without resources to seek help.
ECPAT’s report also highlighted the threat of a Turkish law introduced in January that would allow men accused of having sex with girls under the age of 18 who are no more than 10 years younger than them to get suspended sentences if they marry them. Human rights advocates condemned the legislation known as the “marry-your-rapist” bill for legitimizing child marriage, statutory rape, and making it more difficult to hold perpetrators accountable. Further discussions of the bill in parliament have been delayed, putting more children at risk, according to Yaman.
When young girls enter child marriages, all aspects of their lives are affected, from their health to their education. Child brides who stop attending school are more likely to experience early pregnancy, malnourishment, domestic violence, and pregnancy complications. Girls who enter child marriages also have a harder time escaping poverty.
To prevent child marriage in Turkey, ECPAT is calling on the country to set the minimum age of marriage to 18 years old with no exceptions and remove laws that pardon abusers by allowing them to marry underage victims.