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.

By Alexa Keefe
photographs by Özge Sebzeci
Published 19 Jan 2018, 12:18 GMT
Photograph by Özge Sebzeci
Editor's Note: The subjects featured in this story are referred to by their first initial to protect their privacy.

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 neighbouring 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.”

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 cause. 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 labourer 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 honour 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 neighbours 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 £19 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.”

You can see more of Sebzeci's work on her website and follow her on Instagram.

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