Expert associations question how prohibition of child marriages will be controlled

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Amendments and addenda to the Family Law are being prepared: Expert associations question how prohibition of child marriages will be controlled

Some 2,000 child marriages occur every year in Serbia, and our country is only now preparing to prohibit them, according to the latest amendments and addenda to the Family Law ("Official Gazette of RS", No. 18/2005, 72/2011 - ot. law and 6/2015).

Article 23 of the Family Law (paragraph 1) has so far clearly stated that (1) Marriage may not be concluded by a person who has not reached 18 years of age, along with paragraph 2 which states that (2) court may, for justified reasons, allow for the concluding of marriage to a minor who has reached 16 years of age, and who has reached physical and mental maturity necessary for performing rights and duties in marriage.

Amendments to the Family Law completely deny the possibility of allowing a child over 16 years of age to enter into marriage. Parents who contract such marriages shall be prosecuted for a criminal offense, as will adults who begin cohabitating with a minor.

- Paragraph 1 of the Article is very clear and cites that child marriage is in fact forbidden. The question arises as to how the provisions of this law have been violated and what were (in)actions of the authorities mandated to act in such situations. Article 24 of the law refers to the free will to enter into marriage - "Marriage may not be concluded by a person who is not of free will." The question is also whether - and how - have those children who allegedly entered into marriages of their own free will been evaluated - says Jelena Hrnjak from Citizens’ Association for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings and All Forms of Gender-Based Violence Atina.

She also had a question to the legislators, "How will they protect children who are forced into marriages when we know these are the marriages that are not formally concluded in a legal manner, but arranged by having a girl leave her primary family and go to who knows what and whom?"

As for Serbia failing to prohibit child marriages so far, she says that is a proof that tradition and customs are above any law and that many laws related to family and children are designed in such a way to incorporate practices that are strong and present in society, without considering whether that practice is actually violence or not. In the majority of cases, there were no court proceedings for the criminal offense of human trafficking, while the parents were convicted for the offense of child marriage and are currently on probation.

- We have had a case this year, where a girl herself reported twice that her parents are planning to sell her, and there was no appropriate response - says Jelena Hrnjak.

- It is not that we don’t have sufficient normative solutions that can sanction child marriage, it is a failure to act, i.e. representatives of certain institutions are turning a blind eye when they see that a girl has been forced to marry, or that she was sold, which is often goes hand in hand with a child marriage and represents an additional criminal offense, she stresses.

Early marriages and sale of children are not exclusively related to Roma as people tend to think, and can happen to girls from different rural areas in Serbia whose families are poor, marginalized and discriminated to that extent that they are sold or forced into child marriages. These girls are recognized as victims of human trafficking because they were forced into marriage with significantly older men.

Child marriage is not limited to certain countries, cultures or religions, but happens across the globe. It is not only a trait of poverty-stricken countries.  

Per the latest available data, only four countries in the European Union have a complete ban on marriage of persons under the age of 18 (Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Norway).

There is a Bride Fair in Bulgaria where Serbian girls have also been taken, with videos available on YouTube.

As much as 57 percent of Roma girls enter into a marriage before turning 18, as shown by the survey of multiple indicators for the position of women and children (MICS) conducted in 2014.

Regina De Dominicis, Director of UNICEF Serbia, says that the survey indicated a significant increase in the number of child marriages – data collected in 2005, by using the same methodology, showed 46 percent of such cases.   

- At the global level, in the last ten years, the practice of child marriages has decreased by some 15 percent, which means that around 25 million of child marriages have been prevented. Thus, positive change is possible. The change should occur both in Roma and in wider community. Marriage before the age of 18 is a severe violation of human rights and affects the right of girls and women to health, education, equality, and the right to life free of violence, explains the Director of UNICEF.

She underlines that at the beginning of this year, National Coalition to End Child Marriages was established in partnership with the Coordination Body for Gender Equality of the Government of the Republic of Serbia.

Practice has shown there is a powerful social pressure and expectation that entrenched norms and customs related to marriage have to be respected.

- Almost one quarter (23%) of mothers of the girls we talked with think there are advantages to having a girl marry before turning 18, as marriage ensures her virtue. Girls need positive role models and examples, as well as support in all systems to continue education and postpone marriage. For instance, 35 percent of girls in Roma settlements do not know any girl who finished high school, and around 60 percent do not know any girl who is employed. As much as 70 percent of girls think that all girls get married before turning 18. Social workers who encounter child marriages often say they feel powerless, that they don’t believe change is possible, as tradition is very strong, and they cannot interfere with it. We have seen inconsistency of data that cannot be explained. For instance, in 2018 centers for social work issued 174 consents for child marriages, while during the same period Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia reports of 1,419 child marriages (1,215 girls and 204 boys), says Regina De Dominicis.

It is wrong to speak of it as tradition, because it is a severe violation of child’s rights.

- If there is any form of tradition present, it is a tradition of violence and that is why we must end it. It is extremely dangerous to talk about this as customary law, because then it becomes an alibi for inaction of competent bodies, as well as for our distorted understanding and failure to respond; when people say it is their custom, who am I to get involved. Child marriage is violence against the child that afflicts irreversible harm and long-term traumatic consequences - stresses Jelena Hrnjak.

Source: Kurir website, 22.09.2019.

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