Introduction

This study identifies the reasons behind child marriage among displaced Syrians residing in Turkey and the effects that these marriages have on girls and their families. The primary objective of this study is to understand and analyze the factors that impel Syrian refugee families in Gaziantep, Turkey, to marry off their female children despite this practice being outlawed by Turkish Civil Law § 124, which prohibits the marriage of girls under the age of 17. Turkish law only recognizes marriages that take place at a municipal office and are registered by the court. Marriages involving children cannot be registered in Turkish courts because they are considered a form of sexual exploitation of a minor according to Turkish Civil Law § 104 (Many forms of marriage are practiced in Türkiye: a man might see a girl and then ask her father for permission to marry her, or a man might marry one of his female relatives who has been orphaned, or a man might abduct a woman and marry her without her parent’s permission, or two families might enter into two marriages simultaneously by each exchanging a son and daughter for marriage respectively, etc. This study does not regard any of these as forms of child marriage except for the case of marrying an orphan because an orphan is, by definition, a child whose parents have died. For the purposes of this study, the marriage of orphans is considered to be a form of social support and solidarity with the girl because she is destitute).

In Syrian society, child marriage was practiced much less frequently before the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. These marriages were conducted by a Muslim religious leader or a clergyman representing another faith and only subsequently registered with the court. In many cases, the period between the marriage and its registration was substantial. It usually only took place after a child was born to the couple and the father wanted to register the birth. In Syrian law, marriages were not invalid if they were not registered with the courts as it is the case in Turkey. Thus, before the civil war, Syrian families may not have felt any compunction about marrying off their minor daughters because there was no obligation to register such a marriage. This form of marriage may have been a social practice that families engaged in for a variety of reasons, e.g., because of a familial relationship between the bride and groom, because the girl had withdrawn from education, because women who were not married as children struggled to find husbands subsequently, etc. Before it was recently revised, Syrian Personal Status Law § 59 of 1953 did not prohibit the marriage of minors. It merely imposed the condition that the marriage of a child take place before a court with her guardian’s permission. This law established the threshold of 18 years as the age of maturity (sinn al-bulūgh) for both women and men. When the law was revised, the age of majority for women was reduced to 17 years (§ 16). This law does not, however, invalidate child marriages that take place in settings other than a court nor does it treat them as a punishable crime.

Child marriage has become more common since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011. This is due to the breakup of Syrian family structures as a result of displacement both internally in the country and externally to other countries. These conditions have either yielded new conditions favorable for child marriage or have caused the pre-existing reasons and factors to affect a larger proportion of the population. This article argues that it is not possible to attribute the practice of child marriage to one specific cause. Even within a single family, there may be a range of factors impelling the practice and in some cases, these factors intersect, e.g., in a family experiencing economic hardship, the daughter may have withdrawn from school or never entered formal education. Yet while poverty may be a very significant motivation for child marriage, families may prefer to conceal this fact. As a result, girls may find themselves forced to accept any suitor—even if he is much older, for example—because they want to find a way to relieve the poverty that their families are experiencing. Because girls have fewer paid work opportunities relative to their brothers, they are more likely to feel that they are a financial burden on their families. Moreover, young males may be considered to be a family’s future breadwinners and sources of financial support for parents, whereas young women are expected to get married and move to live with her husband’s family. As girls will not contribute to improving their family’s financial situation, they may feel obliged to lessen the financial burden by accepting the first marriage proposal they receive even though they are still children. Equally, many poor families refuse to marry off their female children despite their economic hardship. The causes of child marriage are liable to change depending on economic conditions and the countries in which displaced Syrians settle. A family’s situation depends on whether the father is able to work or whether the father or eldest son lost their lives in the war. Families lacking a male breadwinner may be more inclined to marry off their minor girls, whom they perceive to be orphans, in order to ensure a more secure future for them.

Some ongoing motivations for child marriage were present before the conflict, as well, such as religious beliefs—that is to say, the reliance on some schools of Islamic legal thought, which do not define a minimum age for marriage. Rather these legal schools impose certain conditions, like the approval of a girl’s guardian, her father or if the father is not present, then her brother. This form of marriage is not in conflict with Syrian law because in Syria, unlike in Turkey, marriage does not fall under civil law. For some Syrian families, Islamic legal regulations may carry more weight than Syrian state law. Therefore, religious beliefs provide one justification for child marriage among some families before and after the beginning of the Syrian civil war.

This study will examine the factors behind an increase in the practice of child marriage among displaced Syrians in Turkey and will analyze the interaction of various factors facilitating and disseminating this practice. It will also consider the changing motivations behind the practice of child marriages before and after the beginning of the Syrian civil war. An intersectional approach is essential for understanding the interaction of multiple causes in different cases of child marriages. Such an intersectional approach enables us to see that even if one factor were eradicated, child marriages will not necessarily cease to be practiced. The problem is multi-factorial and cannot be reduced to a single cause, such as religious belief, poverty, or social custom. Equally, the exceptional circumstances resulting from the experiences of war and displacement need to be taken into account.

Research questions

This study analyzes an ongoing social problem faced by displaced Syrians living outside their country, by interviewing a sample group in and around the city of Gaziantep in Turkey, where a large number of displaced Syrians currently reside. The questions the study seeks to answer are:

  • What do displaced Syrians think about child marriage?

  • What are the consequences of child marriage for the girls involved and their families?

  • What makes some young Syrian men want to marry a minor?

  • What factors led some Syrian families to marry off their minor daughters before the Syrian civil war? What factors have contributed to the proliferation of this practice since the outbreak of conflict in 2011?

  • How has the Syrian civil war and its consequences (e.g., domestic and international population displacement, poverty, interruption of education, etc.) contributed to the practice of child marriage? In other words, has the civil war been the decisive factor in the proliferation of child marriages or has it been used as a pretext by those who seek to use the war, poverty, and religious teachings, etc. as pretexts for engaging in child marriage?

Topics related to marriage to Syrian minors in different regions outside Syria

Syrian children in Turkey face a range of problems because of the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011. These include psychological problems and the challenges of adjusting to a new culture in the country of migration. Other problems pre-date the war but have been exacerbated because of it. These include the marriage of minor girls. Turkish authorities responsible for this area of the law have struggled to contain this phenomenon. This study offers an overview of the significant factors which contribute to the practice of child marriage among Syrian refugees in Turkey. It also considers what effect this practice has on women, girls, and their families. The study’s main contribution is its focus on female children, who are a vulnerable population in need of legal protections and social services. Parents may find themselves unable to resist the pressure to marry their daughters while they are still minors because of the acceptance of child marriage among a segment of Syrian society, who consider any resistance to the practice to be a deviance from cultural norms.

The practice of child marriages has increased considerably with the arrival of large numbers of displaced Syrians. There are several factors behind the practice of child marriage. Nonetheless, each instance of child marriage is the product of a unique set of factors. Therefore, interventions must be designed according to a clear understanding of the conditions these refugee communities face and each intervention must be tailored to the age group and social class of those involved (Mourtada, Schlecht, and DeJong, 2017).

The reasons that impel Syrian families to marry off their female children differ from family to family. There may also be multiple reasons and one reason may outweigh others, such as the role of customs and norms before the Syrian civil war in 2011. In the period after the Syrian civil war of 2011, however, customs and norms play less of a role in contrast with other factors, which have emerged due to the armed conflict, such as the distressing economic and social conditions faced by Syrian families. Nonetheless, cultural traditions continue to play an important role by providing a socially acceptable veneer for the practice of child marriages. The Jordanian Center for Human Rights published a report (UNICEF, 2014) that found that 32% of Syrian women in Jordan were married as children and that the most common justification for such marriages were cultural tradition and concerns about female chastity (The National Center for Human Rights, Jordan, 2017).

Since the outbreak of conflict, several factors have contributed to the practice of child marriage among displaced Syrians residing in Turkey. The prolonged conflict has caused Syrian children to experience a great deal of physical and mental suffering. A considerable proportion of children were orphaned by the war and were forced to migrate unaccompanied by any family members. Some children have lost their parents during the process of migration. Upon arrival in the country of migration, these children are even more at-risk as they may not be able to enter the education system because of social, emotional, and behavioral disorders as a result of the traumas that many of these unaccompanied minors have experienced. Some of these children are Palestinian refugees who had migrated to Syria and are now experiencing forced migration for the second time. Syrian and Palestinian children need global legal protections as part of global human rights as well as local legal protections in the countries of migration (Ahsan Ullah, 2018a, b).

For Syrians, marriage means responsibility and family formation and for that reason, wives must be mature—that is to say, aware—of the responsibilities they will take on when they are married. It is not enough for the wife to be physically mature; she must be cognitively mature as well so that she can cope with married life. Child marriage may lead to conflicts between the husband and wife, but the minor wife will not be able to pursue appropriate remedies. The proliferation of child marriage will also have a negative effect on girls’ participation in education and poses a danger for a generation of girls who will miss out on educational opportunities as a result of child marriage. Female minors are especially deserving of legal protections because they are both women and children (Hamdan, 2018).

Studies have shown that there are several factors that contribute to the practice of child marriage among displaced Syrians, not just in Turkey, but also in Iraqi Kurdistan, for example. These include social customs, weak legal regimes, and a set of economic factors, which precipitate child marriage. Girl brides suffer both psychologically and physically and are more likely to undergo cesarean births. It has also been shown that child marriage causes girls to withdraw from education. Child marriage is a social problem in communities of displaced Syrians in Turkey and elsewhere, but the problem appears more pronounced in Turkey, perhaps owing the large Syrian population there (Ḥusayn, 2018).

Studies have shown that it is not always easy to determine the reasons behind a given child marriage. Some families may conceal the real reason behind a child marriage and give different reasons. For example, Syrian families often cite custom and tradition as the reason for practicing child marriage. Families may marry their daughters off because they are concerned that the girl’s chastity will be impugned. Social customs are also cited to conceal the actual economic hardship causing minor girls being marriage off. A study from Jordan, which surveyed Syrian mothers and their daughters who were married off as children, illustrates that although most survey participants presented child marriage as a Syrian custom, the reasons they provided for such marriages among Syrians in Jordan related to cultural differences and the poor economic condition of Syrian families as a result of the war (Buckman, 2018).

Because child marriage is prohibited by Turkish law, Syrian families conceal these marriages in order to continue to benefit from welfare payments and do not register these marriages at the courts to avoid prosecution. They also choose not to enroll their daughters in school who have been married under the legal age (Hopancı, Koç, and Özkoçak, 2019).

Some studies have found that displaced Syrians residing in Turkey have maintained their customs and traditions, which may include the practice of child marriage, even though they are aware of the negative consequences of such marriages and the risks associated with pregnancy and other physical ailments (Yakıt, 2020). The practice of child marriage has increased since 2011 and not only because of social customs as is often claimed. Social customs are one of a number of factors, including displacement and economic hardship, that have led to the increase in child marriage since 2011.

The present study overlaps with previous studies on child marriage in considering the factors that contribute to the practice. However, it differs from previous studies by not focusing on a single cause and not suggesting that a single cause is responsible for the practice. This study takes an intersectional approach to understanding how multiple factors contribute to the practice of child marriage. Any satisfactory approach to addressing the problem of child marriage must take into account the full range of causes and attempt to understand how these causes interact. This study identifies the intersections of reasons behind child marriages and also shows that more complex factors lied behind decisions to practice child marriages that those stated by research participants in other studies. This study also considers the negative impact of these marriages on both the girl and the families and suggests solutions to putting an end to the practice or reducing its frequency by understanding and addressing the intersection of a variety of underlying causes.

Analytical framework: an intersectional approach

As analytical framework, this article employs an intersectional approach to discuss the complex interrelations between different identity markers, agency, contextuality, and patterns of symbolic representation in understanding the practice of child marriages among Syrian refugees in Turkey. Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) introduces and develops the theory of intersectionality to illustrate how gender and race intersect in the experience of discrimination and oppression of African American women. Dissatisfied with the approaches and conclusions of feminist theory at that time which primarily reflected the experiences of white middle-class women, Crenshaw proposes an intersectional approach which emphasizes how gender, race, and socio-economic background intersect in both processes of oppression and domination and in experiences of inequality and discrimination. Such processes and experiences cannot be reduced to one-single identity marker, such as gender, but become manifest in a complex interplay between different identity markers which results in diverse forms of oppression and experiences of inequality for women of a variety of racial and socio-economic backgrounds. Crenshaw’s contribution has been extremely influential in connecting feminist and critical race theory and has become one of cornerstones of so-called third-wave feminism with its emphasis on the individual experiences of women in various contexts and its opposition to universalizing tendencies of feminist theory to date (Herr, 2014; Kurtiş and Adams, 2015; Aune and Holyoak, 2018).

An intersectional approach as analytical framework has been adopted in scholarship to a significant extent, in particular in research which seeks to counter reductionist patterns of analysis which focus on one particular identity marker when understanding discrimination and inequality while neglecting other equally important identity markers and their combined interplay and overlooking the contextuality of experiences of inequality and oppression. This study argues that research on the practice of underage marriages among Syrian refugees in Turkey and on the reasons for their existence cannot be reduced to religion or culture but need to take equal account of other factors such as socio-economic background, educational level, and class and also consider the exceptional circumstances of Syrian refugee families and their experiences of war and displacement. For that purpose, this article bases its discussion on Winker and Degele’s (2011) understanding of “intersectionality as multi-level analysis.” Both Winker and Degele respond to McCall’s (2005) intervention to provide intersectional theory with solid methodological foundations. While acknowledging the importance of the concept of intersectionality in gender studies in particular, Winker and Degele seek to give the concept of intersectionality more analytical strength. Their reflections also provide an opportunity for moving the concept out of critical feminist and racial studies and to apply it to other patterns of systemic oppression and inequality.

For Winker and Degele, two points need to be added to intersectional theory in order to advance its analytical rigor: body and symbolic representation. Patterns of oppression and inequality are embodied experiences and can be legitimized by normative understandings of the human body which target those bodies which appear to deviate from such understandings. Equally important and particularly relevant to this article, Winker and Degele add “symbolic representation” (2010:53) as another integral feature of intersectionality. Symbolic representations include “cultural symbols” (Winker and Degele, 2010:52), social values, ideological orientations, and religious beliefs which can be used to legitimize, consolidate, and perpetuate patterns of oppression and inequality and do not necessarily revolve around gender, race, and class alone but appeal to more ideational notions of protecting and preserving culture, tradition, or religion. Such symbolic representations are important for the purpose of this article, as the collected data refers to social customs and cultural traditions and religious beliefs and practices to explain and justify the practice of underage marriages among Syrian refugees in Turkey. At the same time, this article shows that both religion and culture are not the sole explanatory factors for this practice.

In her study on transnational marriages between Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian women and Belgian men, Heyse (2010) also seeks to expand the spectrum of intersectionality and argues similar to Winker and Degele that “one-dimensional frameworks that either prioritise gender, ethnicity or class seem insufficient to grasp the complexity of mixed transnational couples’ lived experiences and identities” (Heyse, 2010: 68). For Heyse, “the contextuality and social situatedness of intersectional subject positions as well as the agency of individuals to strategically deploy certain social categories, intersections and power relations” (2010: 68) need to be added to intersectional theory. An approach which focuses on gender, race, and class neglects the salience of both contextuality and agency. Individuals assume agency by evoking certain identity categories in specific social contexts differently which might appear arbitrary and even contradictory but is often done in a strategic manner to both justify or challenge existing patterns of oppression and inequality. Hence, “fluctuations and inconsistencies” (Heyse, 2010: 69) empirical data might bring forth can be the result of the selective and strategic use of particular identity markers in response to differing contextual challenges and patterns of oppression and inequality specific to them.

This study adopts, following Winker and Degele, “praxeological intersectionality” (2010:57) which foregrounds empirical research on social practices. Defining underage marriages as a social practice among a significant number of Syrian refugees in Turkey allows for unearthing both identity constructions, social norms and cultural values they adhere to and wider social structures and specific contextual circumstances which have formed them. By taking Syrian refugees in Turkey and various categories and factors determining their understandings of, motivations for, and legitimizations of underage marriage practices, this study adopts, what McCall refers to, “an intracategorical approach” (2005: 1776). For McCall, this approach focuses on investigating the complexity of categories and their intersection at the micro-level, most often informed by qualitative data obtained through ethnographic research (2005: 1780–1783), as it is the case with this article.

While an intersectional approach is used as analytical framework to inform the discussion, to create certain categories, and to analyze their relationship to one another, the research approach is equally inductive by drawing relevant categories out of the interview data collected during empirical research (Winker and Degele, 2010:57). Intersectionality understood here as multi-level analysis addresses the question of which markers of identity, sources of inequality and oppression, or aspects of symbolic representation are central in understanding social practices such as underage marriages and which are emphasized or neglected by interviewees in describing the rationales and nature of such marriages. As symbolic representations, they are equally used by interviewees to conceal other more important factors in facilitating underage marriages such as poverty. An intersectional approach is needed here, as the collected data suggests that rationales for such practices cannot be reduced to cultural or religious factors but involve a number of categories such as educational level and socio-economic status. Equally important is contextuality. The article argues that a rise of underage marriages among Syrian refugees is also one of the responses to the exceptional challenges posed by their experiences of war, displacement, and migration.

Methodology, ethical concerns, and goals

This study draws attention to a social problem that is affecting minor Syrian girls, who are the most vulnerable group in society and the one that is most in need of legal protection. These girls—who have had to face difficulties stemming from the civil war, such as distress, and psychological and cognitive exhaustion, as well as the challenges of adjusting to a new country and learning a new language—find themselves being forced into marriages while still children. These marriages may also cause negative consequences for the girls’ families for a variety of reasons (e.g., the difficulty of registering these marriages in Turkey and the physical and mental suffering that these marriages cause underage girls).

Interviews with research participants were chosen as the best method for acquiring information and were conducted primarily in person and some online. A female mental health specialist was present during the interviews along with the male author of this study as well as a female research assistant. Interview participants were recruited from Gaziantep because of the large number of Syrian refugees in the area and its proximity to the researcher. Male and female participants, whose ages ranged from 16 to 47 years old, were chosen for interviews. Participants included husbands and wives who were married as children, people who were involved in the marriage of a minor female relative, and legal professionals specializing in family issues. The author conducted fourteen interviews in total. Four participants were chosen because they work as family-dispute mediators and are knowledgeable about religious protocols regarding marriage. One of these is a woman who holds a religious qualification (ijāzah) in Islamic law and who works in refugee camps as a mediator in family disputes. Another is a man who holds a secular legal qualification and who works as a case management supervisor in an organization that deals with many cases of marital separation. Six women were interviewed who were either married as minors—and some of them are still married to their husbands—or who discussed cases of child marriage in their families. There were four male participants. One is the maternal uncle of a woman who was married underage and the remaining three are the husbands of women whom they married when they were minors. These men are all undergraduate students at university. Interview questions focused on the factors that cause Syrian refugees to marry their children off before they reach the legal age and the effects of such marriages for Syrians residing in Turkey.

Interviews followed ethical protocols such as receiving informed consent, informing them of their rights to withdraw from the interview within a specific period of time and pseudo-anonymizing data collected during the interviews and giving interview participants pseudonyms.

Male legal professional

Three legal professionals who work in mediating family disputes with qualifications in Islamic law and state law

Female legal professional

A lawyer who works on a voluntary basis to mediate conflicts in Syrian refugees’ families

Teacher

A male schoolteacher who spoke about a case of child marriage among his relatives

Husbands

Two university students who are married to women whom they married while the women were minors

Married minors

Four women, who were married as minors and did not complete their formal education. They are not able to read or write

Husband

A language teacher who is married to a woman whom he married while she was a minor

Unmarried women

Two teachers who spoke about cases of child marriage among their relatives

Results

Participant responses revealed several points that inform their understanding of the issue of female child marriage, whether in terms of their knowledge of specific cases of female child marriage or their awareness of the true reasons and negative consequences of such marriages as well as their suggestions for putting an end to this practice.

Awareness of child marriage

All the participants were aware of the phenomenon of female child marriage either because they had been married as minors or because one of their relatives or acquaintances had married a female minor. Participants were not reluctant in providing examples of such marriages based either on their own experience or that of their relatives because of a potential social stigma that might be attached to such marriages. It became clear that when most Syrian participants use the term “minor” (qāṣir), they do not do so with reference to a girl’s age, but rather with reference to her height and physical development. Nor is the term used to refer to her level of intellectual development. They refer to religious instructions that do not specify a minimum age for marriage. These instructions refer rather to a girl having attained the “age of puberty” (sinn al-bulūgh) or adolescence, which is determined by the appearance of signs of womanhood such as menstruation or other signs of physical maturity. This interpretation is made with reference to the Quranic verse 4:6. They use this verse and its explanation in books of Quranic exegesis to argue that Islam does not set a minimum age for a woman’s marriageability. They also interpret the term “orphans” (yatāmā) (mentioned in Quran 4:3) to mean a female child whose father is dead and who has not yet reached puberty. They claim that the term orphans in Islamic law refers to pre-pubescent girls but that consummation of a marriage is forbidden until the bride reaches puberty (Al-Shqairat, 2019: 134).

Some Syrians’ strong belief in the validity of such views justifies their support of the marriage of female children despite their knowledge that the practice is illegal in Turkey. Some held the view that Turkish law would not be applied to them because Turkish authorities perceive them refugees who are ignorant of Turkish laws. In connection with this issue, Islamic law has left space for the exigencies of different contexts and circumstances. It does not mean that any female child is marriageable, rather than a minimum age for marriage must be determined in each society according to the circumstances in which people live. In practice, according to Islamic law, this minimum age is determined by a girl attaining puberty and this is supported by the ruling that girls who have not yet reached puberty are not marriageable. This is the view of contemporary Islamic jurists (fuqahāʾ). As for jurists in history, they held that the marriage of a girl who had not yet reached menarche was lawful by referring to Quran 65:4, which refers to “those wives who have not menstruated” (Al-Shqairat, 2019: 134).

This legal opinion did not set a minimum age for marriageability, but rather determined a set of rules for marriage and made a distinction between the completion of a marriage contract and the consummation of a marriage (i.e., sexual intercourse). It allowed for the legal marriage of a prepubescent girl, but forbade the consummation of that marriage until the girl reaches puberty and full sexual maturity (Al-Shqairat, 2019: 134–145). On this basis, it can be said that Islamic law does not provide a definition for a “minor” and instead points to physical signs of “the age of puberty” (sinn al-bulūgh) and the “age of maturity” (sinn ar-rushd) in assigning responsibilities to males and females, including the right to marriage. In the context of this study, the marriage of “minors” refers to girls who are entered into marriage before reaching the age of 17, as determined by Turkish law.

Based on the interview data, it appears that those men who decide to marry minors are fully aware that they are marrying a girl under the legal marrying age and do not feel shame because there is no stigma in it for them and it is not forbidden in Islamic law. Nor does legal stigma present an obstacle to these young men. They are satisfied with a marriage contract drawn up in the presence of a Muslim religious authority (shaykh) in order to make the conjugal relationship permissible. The presence of an unmarried daughter of marrying age in the family home is considered to be socially unacceptable and families have become accustomed to Islamic judges (al-qāḍī ash-sharʿī) in Syria allowing such marriages in most cases, disregarding the bride’s wishes in favor of her family’s preference (RESPECT, 2015). Probably for this reason, Syrians in Turkey find it odd that Turkish law courts do not permit such marriages because they compare the situation to the one prevailing in their home country.

Factors contributing to the rise in child marriage among displaced Syrians residing in Turkey

Female child marriage was practiced in Syria before the civil war in 2011 and is not a new phenomenon, but cases of female child marriage among Syrians were not as numerous before the conflict began. This is verifiable because there were several impediments that a young man had to overcome before he could plan to marry, including completing his education and university studies and securing his future financial position. Child marriage was practiced by a specific subset of the population. In some cases, it would take place through an engagement as soon as a young man had completed his secondary or tertiary education and secured employment or another source of income. Most interview participants subscribed to the view that the practice of child marriage observed among displaced Syrians was present before the war as well. For Wafāʾ, “child marriage was practiced in the past, but it had nearly died out. As a result of the war, cases of child marriage increased significantly.” Even in rural communities where such marriages were not controversial, the practice was no longer common before the war because it was considered that men who married their daughters off as children were uneducated and stuck in backward rural traditions. Salma reported that “Families who married their daughters off as minors were considered to be ignorant and backwards, whereas when our parents were younger, child marriage was an accepted practice because of a lack of awareness and poor access to education.” Samia commented that “People became more aware and their cultural horizons expanded in the period before the war such that families made educating their daughters a priority. Women went to university and could refuse to be married until they had completed their studies.”

After 2011, circumstances have changed and cases of child marriage among Syrian refugees increased. The author was surprised to hear from one participant that many Syrian refugee families choose to conceal cases of child marriage for reasons particular to each family. Ahmad explained that “there are many cases of child marriage among Syrian refugees, and we only know about a small proportion of them. People do not speak about these marriages for a number of reasons.” During the interviews, the author did not encounter any cases of child marriage being concealed. To the contrary, participants freely spoke of instances of their relatives or neighbors marrying their daughters off while they were minors. There were some cases in which the family wanted to conceal the marriage of their female child, not because of fear of social stigma, but of the Turkish authorities.

There are various factors that drive Syrian refugees to marry their daughters off as minors.

Poverty

Half of interview participants said that poverty was one of the main reasons that lead Syrian families to marry their daughters off as children. It can be said that poverty is a new factor that has resulted from the Syrian civil war and has forced a segment of the population to marry their daughters off as children in order to seek relief from financial burdens. Many of the jobs available to Syrian girls in Turkey do not pay enough to support a family’s expenses and this is a relatively new state of affairs for Syrian girls. Halimah explained that “Most Syrian families who have taken refuge in Turkey are employed in menial jobs for very low wages. We come from a rural background in which families have large numbers of children. For example, there are nine children in my family and most of us are girls. Families like ours tend to marry their daughters off as children.”

Women working in in rural communities in agriculture did not necessarily prevent child marriage. At the same time, families very rarely married their underage daughters off for reasons of poverty before the war. It was considered somewhat shameful to do so on account of the suitor’s wealth, but this is now relatively common for Syrian families to marry off their daughters below the legal marrying age for reasons of financial hardship. The practice is more common in refugee camps, especially among those families with more daughters than sons and especially when those families consider it unacceptable for their daughters to work outside the home to gain an income. Another issue that has made things even more difficult for Syrian families is the lack of good employment options for them in Turkey. They can only find work as porters, or roving vendors, or other jobs that do not provide the necessary income to support a family with two or three daughters in average living conditions. This has encouraged female child marriage as a way of reducing the economic burden on the head of household.

A family’s economic situation and poverty are the two most important factors that lead families to marry off their underage daughters. Poverty affects everyone in the household regardless of gender, but female children may be more negatively affected by poverty than their brothers, because they may feel that they impose a heavier burden on their fathers. The loss of property faced by most Syrian families have put them in a dire economic situation. Tribal and rural communities in Syria are invested in growing the number of their offspring so that their children can assist them with farming and share in the burden of family labor. Child marriage has been the most efficient means of achieving this goal.

The researcher noted that, according to one interview participant, poverty was also a contributing factor to so-called temporary marriages (nikāḥ al-mutʿah). A young man proposes to an underage Syrian girl in the name of a religiously ordained practice—that is to say, the suitor seeks a veneer of religious approval for a sexual relationship with a female minor in order to avoid the charge of sexual exploitation even though the marriage was acceded to because of poverty or another factor—but his only objective is to use the girl for his sexual gratification and then abandon her. One married male interviewee said, “There was one marriage that I observed that had a great impact on me. It was a marriage between a Syrian girl and a young Arab man from the Gulf. The man’s intention was to derive pleasure from the girl for a few months in exchange for a sum of money that he paid to the girl’s family. They called it a traveler’s marriage (zawāj al-misyār)” (SASA Post, 2020). That child marriages are not registered makes it easier for such arrangements to come into being (RESPECT, 2015).

Poor education and limited knowledge of Turkish law

A lack of education and awareness are factors in the spread of child marriage according to a few of the interview participants. According to Salma, “the fact that girls do not go to school and do not complete their education is one of the factors that contributes to child marriage.” One interview participant felt that child marriage is only practiced by families with no educational attainment, especially illiterate families. Hamad said that “I was mediating between two minor spouses and after we’d drafted the document explaining what the two parties had agreed to, I told the husband to sign. He asked me, ‘Where do I sign?’ and that was when I realized that he was illiterate.” Another participant argued, however, that child marriage is also practiced by educated families to some extent. For Suʿad, “there is a lack of education, but there are also some educated fathers who marry their daughters when they are still minors out of patriarchy (ʿaṣabiyyah)... They are the exception, however.”

Therefore, that poor education is not the only reason for child marriage among Syrian families because even families with high educational attainment engage in the practice. Setting aside the wealth disparity between poor and wealthy families, there are other factors, which contribute to the practice, such as custom or it may be the case that in some wealthy families, the education of girls is not prioritized. Nonetheless, poor education is a significant factor in the practice of child marriage, and it is linked to other causes that have already been mentioned. There are some Syrian families with little wealth and low educational achievement who want their daughters to complete their education and they sometimes choose to marry them to an educated man on the basis that he will ensure that that happens. There are cases of girls who have been married as minors who have continued their education just as there are cases of girls who have withdrawn from education after being married.

One participant claimed that Syrian families living in Turkey subscribed to the view that Turkish law does not apply to them and that they can contravene it without repercussions. One legal professional who was interviewed said, “there is a belief among Syrian families in Turkey that they can break the laws there because they don’t apply to them. They think they will manage to get away from the law. In fact, they think that Turkish law is unjust because it fails to accommodate their customs and traditions.” Turkish law does not take Islamic law as the basis for its personal status laws, including issues of marriage and divorce, rather, as is the case in European legal systems, marriage and divorce fall under civil law. Many Syrian refugees, however, believe that these arrangements should be regulated by Islamic law, as is the case in Syria. Many Syrian refugees believe that the Turkish government will turn a blind eye to the criminal offence of child marriage and treat it like minor offences such as traffic violations, trading permits, and some minor tax issues were treated when Syrian refugees first settled in Turkey. The Turkish government initially adopted such a lenient approach as a way of integrating Syrians into Turkish society and on account of their lack of awareness of Turkish laws. The Turkish government never made an exception for child marriage, however.

Customs and traditions

Cultural traditions and customs play a significant role in the spread of child marriage among the Syrian refugee population in Turkey. All the interview participants stated that there is a set of dominant traditions and customs related to marriage, which Syrian families follow, that contribute significantly to the spread of child marriage. Halimah said, “We have a cultural belief that [it is best] to marry a young girl and raise her to be as you wish, that is to say in accordance with your own traditions and customs.” This practice was common before the war and some Syrian families would claim that younger brides found it easier to adapt to their husbands’ preferences than older brides. Child marriage is the product of a number of factors and the adaptability of minor wives may be the most probable, but it is not always the main one. People also believe that if a girl is married when she is young then she will grow up more slowly and there will always be a disparity in age between her and her husband. It may, therefore, be the case that her husband will choose not to marry a second time because his first wife is still young. These cultural beliefs do not determine the behavior of Syrian households alone, but they may encourage child marriage. These customs continue to have a residual effect on the lives of minor girls. Many marriages among Syrians in Turkey are predicated on such customs and norms. They also align with other factors, such as a family’s desire to marry their daughter off in order to avoid incidents that may cause them dishonor such as the girl falling in love or entering into an illicit relationship with a boy.

Despite the broadening of cultural horizons and the new social attitudes that have spread among Syrians in Turkey, which has been accelerated by internet access which was not as readily available in Syria before the war, and the postponement of marriage for women, which has resulted from this, marriage age among Syrians is by no means comparable to what we see among Turks, for whom the average marrying age for men is 27 and for women is 24 according to TÜIK, the statistics office of the Turkish Ministry of Finance. Syrians seem not to have been affected by this new cultural setting (Tuik, 2023). They have maintained their custom of marrying female minors and continue to believe that if a woman does not marry at a young age, then she will never marry. Hasan said, “Families worry that their daughters will never marry. This fear has grown since the war because the number of young men has dwindled and many of the ones left have migrated. Those who remain are reluctant to marry.”

It is possible that some Syrians have become open to the wider global culture and have begun to discover more about Turkish society, which was entirely new to them, that they may have begun to fear that their daughters will be the victims of technology and social media, especially as these platforms enable young men and women to meet one another online. This may have led to an increased fear among some Syrians that their daughters will defy traditional values and will enter sexual relationships outside of marriage. All of this is entirely new to a sizable proportion of Syrian society. Lama points out that “As Syrians, we follow certain customs and traditions that are imposed on us by the lives we live. If a young woman grows old, no one will marry her, and she may bring shame to her family [if there is] an issue related to her chastity.”

Limited understanding of religious teachings

According to most interview participants, misinformation about Islamic legal instructions may be contributing to the spread of child marriage among Syrian refugees in Turkey. This factor was present in Syria before the war and it has remained a significant factor among Syrian families with minimal education, who believe that they are following Islamic legal instructions because the Prophet Muhammad married his wife Aishah when she was 11 years old. They do not consider child marriage to be shameful or religiously impermissible. Rather, they believe that it is a practice with prophetic precedent. Suʿad points out that “we hardly understand anything about our religion. Islam actually exalts women and gives them an elevated position. Don’t forget that we always say that women are the half of the population who raise the other half of the population. The details surrounding the prophet’s marriage to Aishah are disputed.” The example of Aisha has been promulgated because some religious scholars claim that child marriage is a way of emulating the tradition of the Prophet and now that type of marriage has come to be seen as a custom rooted in Islamic tradition.

People may accept this form of marriage as a way of emulating a prophetic tradition without truly understanding the rules concerning marriage in Islamic law. They focus on the literal meaning of events in the time of the Prophet and fail to understand their true meaning (al-Hamūndī, 2017). Islamic law does not prescribe a specific minimum age for marriage, but it does specify having reached puberty (sinn al-bulūgh). Therefore, it should not be concluded from that that a girl is marriageable no matter her age. It is well known that Islamic law lays down broad principles, which can function in all places and times, and it is not a law code containing precise legal texts, which are applicable to all people in all places and at all times. Since marriage is something that changes depending on context, then it makes sense that the minimum age for marriage will change depending on the context as well. According to Fuʾad, “Islam tells us not to get married until we fully understand what a marriage entails. As for the Prophet marrying ʿĀʾishah, well that was something specific to that time period and it was appropriate back then.” Women who are still in education should not be married before the age of 22. In addition, ʿĀʾishah’s age at the time of her marriage to the Prophet is a disputed topic, as one male schoolteacher interviewed commented.

Although some people hold the view that fixing a minimum age for marriage contradicts the tradition of Islamic law because the Quranic text does not determine a specific age and because of the example of the Prophet, the more common view among Islamic jurists is that there should be a minimum age for marriage, which is the age of puberty (sinn al-bulūgh). In the Hanafi tradition, this age is determined to be 18 for boys and 17 for girls on the basis of their interpretation of the Quranic verse 6:152. For Hanafi jurists, this is the most acceptable view because it is seen as reflecting the common good (al-Hamūndī, 2017: 130)

Problems around child marriages

According to most interview participants, child marriage leads to a range of problems, which affect the husband, wife, their children, and their families. These problems are especially dire for the wife, who is unable to cope with the burden of marital life and childrearing. Maha points out that “Child marriage will have an effect on the girl’s body and mental state. Both sets of parents will be expecting her to get pregnant and give birth without considering whether her body can handle that. I know of a case of a girl who was married at the age of fourteen and became pregnant. She had many complications during the pregnancy and had to be rushed to the hospital for an emergency abortion because her body was not able to support the fetus as she was so young.” Minor wives are not necessarily mature. In some cases, this is true of their physical condition so that sexual intercourse causes them injury and pain, and in some cases, it is true of their emotional state so that they do not understand what it means to be a mother or to communicate with their husbands. As a result, her husband and his family treat her harshly, claiming that she is not fulfilling her marital duties, and they may claim that she is unsuited to be a wife and therefore end the marriage. A girl who has not yet turned 17 years old will then be considered a divorced woman who is an undesirable marriage partner for another man. Muhammad cited an example: “A girl was entered into marriage at the age of 13, but this marriage resulted in divorce when she was not able to have sexual intercourse on account of her physical immaturity. In the eyes of society, she was now a divorced woman and this is a shameful thing in our society.” Salim agreed that society views divorced women unfavorably. Moreover, the girl may not receive what is financially owed to her when the marriage is dissolved because these marriages are not recorded legally. According to Maha, “A young man married a girl who was thirteen years old, so they were unable to register the marriage in Turkey. Now the girl can’t get the paperwork she needs to visit her family in Syria.”

Child marriages cannot be registered in Turkey because they violate Turkish Civil Law § 124, except in rare cases in which a judge can authorize the marriage of an underage boy or girl. One of these conditions is that the boy or girl cannot be under the age of 16, according to the law. This type of marriage among Syrian refugees in Turkey also means that a girl cannot receive medical care because she will be wary of accessing hospitals where the staff may choose to report her marriage to the authorities. These girls are forced to access medical care in clinics run by female Syrian nurses and doctors, which are not licensed by the Turkish government. These facilities do not possess the up-to-date equipment necessary for prenatal care. For these child wives, pregnancy may result in abortion or danger to the mother so these marriages become a sort of prison for them, in which they will have participated in the death of their fetus while they are still children themselves. This leads to psychological trauma and depression early in their lives and will lead these girls to seek divorce from their husbands, according to a married female minor who was interviewed.

There are cases of child marriage in which the girl became pregnant and gave birth without difficulty but was unable to raise the child properly because she was not fully aware of childrearing methods. It is normal for a minor to be unaware of childrearing practices because she is a child herself. The danger in these cases is that the baby may suffer from the minor’s lack of knowledge about how to care for a child or breastfeed and in certain cases, this may lead to the baby’s death. There is no question that the minor mother does not wish to kill her child, but her behavior has led to the child’s death because she does not understand the responsibilities of being a mother. In other cases, the child will be harmed and become ill because of the girl’s lack of knowledge. She may feed the child food that is harmful or may fail to provide sufficient care for the child or treat the child in a way that will cause serious damage. A male schoolteacher interviewed provided an example “There was a case of child marriage in which the minor wife gave birth to a daughter and when the daughter was only three days old, her mother fed her ice cream. This led the baby to break out in hives on her cheeks.” In another case that was adjudicated by an in official Islamic law court among Syrian refugees, a minor mother was held responsible for her child’s death through negligence because she fell asleep while breastfeeding the infant and stifled him.

It is true that one cannot characterize these marriages as a form of “rape” as one of the participants claimed because rape pre-supposes criminal intent and is often accompanied by abduction, violence, or the threat of violence and is not in the context of a marriage, according to Syrian Criminal Law Code § 489, but we can say that child marriage is a crime in and of itself and must be combated because of the harm it causes. According to a female schoolteacher who was interviewed, girls entered into child marriage suffer physical and psychological trauma and are treated as nothing more than commodities to be bought and sold; it is in this sense similar to rape causing the girl physical and mental harm. If marriage to a girl who has not yet turned 17 takes place through coercion, threats, or deception, then it can be considered a case of sexually grooming a minor, according to Turkish Criminal Law § 102.

A small proportion of interview participants felt that child marriage did not have an impact on marital life. A male schoolteacher interviewed felt that the problems that emerge between partners in these marriages could emerge between any couple regardless of their age. Some girls may find the freedom to engage in activities that they were unable to pursue before they were married so they continue in these marriages even though they are minors. According to Halimah, this increased freedom may provide the girl with an incentive to tolerate the burdens of married life. One thing that was noticeable from interviews with participants is that they did not consider child marriage to be a form of denying minor wives their childhood. However, when the author asked a married female minor, who said that she had not faced any difficulties in her marriage despite being married as a minor, would you marry your daughter off before she turns seventeen years old, she answered, “I wouldn’t allow my daughter to be married when she’s still a child. I want her to get an education and enjoy her childhood.”

Suggestions for ending the practice of child marriage

Participants differed on the possible solutions for putting an end to or decreasing the frequency of child marriages. A minority felt that they did not have any proposal addressing the challenge of ending or reducing the practice of child marriage, while others felt that child marriage is a socially acceptable phenomenon and not a problem to be solved. On the other hand, some felt that child marriage is an abnormal form of marriage, but did not have any faith in possible solutions to the problem because it is such a widespread social custom. For Suʿad, “There is no possible solution because fathers will not be persuaded not to marry off their children. If a father finds a suitable mate for his daughter, he won’t reject him.” These participants were either supporters of child marriage or felt that families who engage in the practice could not be persuaded not to end it because it is a practice rooted in their religious or cultural beliefs and that these are firmly held and difficult to change. According to Lama, “People can always find a religious leader (shaykh) to solemnize a marriage, even if it’s against the law.”

The majority of participants thought that there were solutions to the problem of child marriage, however, be that through the application of laws or public education campaigns in the form of lectures and training courses. Breaking up these marriages was not a solution, in the view of a schoolteacher interviewed. This group of participants were either opposed to child marriage in principle, or had been harmed as a result of it, or had seen relatives harmed by it, or had had their views changed by a public education campaign that they had either encountered in a regional training session run by an NGO or on social media. Nonetheless, they did not agree on a single solution, and each participant proposed their own solution to eliminate or reduce the practice of child marriage among Syrian refugees. Some suggested that there be fines or prison terms for those who marry minors. Some also pointed to the role that television programs can play in preventing the practice. Wafāʾ suggested that “the practice could be eliminated or made less frequent by the imposition of fines or prison sentences and there could be a series of television programs about child marriage and the harms that it causes.” Others focused on the role played by organizations working in the field of female empowerment and emphasized that public awareness campaigns should be conducted in Arabic because refugees would be more receptive to that. For Ahmad, “the solution is to get girls involved with organizations devoted to female empowerment and other programs that make it less likely for a girl to be married while still a child, such as skills training or the resumption of her education.” Others believed that the solution lies with religious leaders who can publicize the harms of child marriage. They are better placed to convey the information clearly to people, according to a married male participant.

Conclusion

Based on the analysis above, we can conclude that: most participants—regardless of age, educational attainment, or gender—are aware of the issue of child marriage. Equally the analysis has shown that there is no single cause that leads Syrian refugees to practice child marriage, rather it is the product of several context-dependent factors. The largest factor in the rise of child marriage was the absence of religious prohibition or discouragement of the practice because that is the usual rejoinder when people are told that child marriage is an outdated custom. Although child marriage was practiced in Syrian society before 2011, there has been a notable increase among Syrian refugees in Turkey. This is the result of a number of factors, the most significant of which are fear concerning a girl’s chastity and the desire to alleviate the financial burden caused by one’s daughter. These have embedded the practice in Syrian culture and strengthened it after 2011.

Islamic legal instructions are not a cause of child marriage alone and there are no religious texts that promote marrying minor girls as such. While these instructions do not fix a minimum marriageable age, they do require that one has attained puberty (sinn al-bulūgh), which is understood to mean a certain degree of intellectual and physical maturity. This age varies depending on context. Since Islamic law does not prohibit child marriage, many Syrian Muslims consider the practice acceptable as it suits prevailing cultural beliefs and social norms. Although Islam does not fix a minimum age for marrying, it does require that the husband and wife have reached puberty. The age at which one reaches puberty depends on one’s context, or to put it another way, all Islamic religious teachings are predicated on the individual’s best interest. This interest must be justified, and we cannot conceive of any justification that legitimizes stealing a girl’s childhood and forcing her into married life, which includes sexual intercourse and the responsibilities of a wife and mother, when she is still a child. While there are cases of child marriage that have been successful, there are many more that have failed. Even in those cases of successful child marriage, the girls involved refuse to allow their daughters to be married while children.

Child marriage is more common among families with little to no educational attainment and impoverished families and relatively rare among educated or wealthy families. Wealthy families are impelled to marry their daughters off as children in order to prevent the girl’s inherited wealth from being transferred to another family if she, for example, grows up and forms an attachment with a man who is not her relative or if they want to marry their son to one of his underage female relatives who is very attractive girl. Cases such as these are becoming very rare, however, whereas child marriages as a result of poverty and financial need or out of concern for a girl’s chastity have increased. These reasons came about as a result of the war since 2011 and the ensuing refugee crisis. Other factors, which were particularly prominent at the beginning of the Syrian experience of displacement as a result of the civil war, are forced migration, poverty, and the fear that a girl may run away or be abducted. Syrian families in their countries of migration may feel unsafe because they do not know Turkish society.

There is no wholescale solution to the problem of this type of marriage given the intersectionality of factors leading to it. Solutions may be limited to making the practice less common and remediating its consequences to the extent possible. This will not be accomplished in the short term because, as this paper has shown, there are multiple and distinct factors that lead to child marriage and that they cannot all be solved at once. It would be more efficient to treat the underlying causes of child marriage to make the practice less common in the future. This can be done by eradicating unemployment and poverty by increasing the incomes of Syrian families and supporting other mitigation strategies such as public awareness campaigns, girls’ education, law enforcement, and television programs on the topic. Religious authorities also have an important role to play given their influence on Syrian refugee communities. Someone who wants to emulate the behavior of the Prophet, who married ʿĀʾishah when she was a minor, could be persuaded to emulate the Prophet in his marriage to Khadījah, who was 15 years older than he was, as one of the participants argued. Recently some young Syrian women in Turkey, especially those who are bilingual in Turkish and Arabic, have begun working outside the house. Perhaps due to economic hardship, etc., some Syrian families have changed their attitudes toward their daughters’ employment. This will reduce the incidence of child marriage because girls who earn an income will no longer pose a financial burden on their families.

Child marriage is not a new phenomenon in Syrian society caused by the outbreak of civil war in 2011. Many of the underlying causes of child marriage (e.g., poverty, social customs, etc.) predate the war and while they affect everyone in society, female children suffer in particular because they are children. The problem of education and school participation, for example, has affected some Syrian families, especially those living in rural areas, for a long time. In some cases, there are no local middle schools or these are very far away from the village where these families live, so they withdraw their male and female children from school after the elementary level. However, boys are more likely to be enrolled in middle school because they are allowed to commute to cities by themselves and to live apart from their families, whereas girls are less likely to continue their education because they not allowed to travel to neighboring villages or cities on their own. These girls will either be married off as children or be engaged in arduous rural labor. The inability of these girls to continue their education becomes a reason for them to be married off as children. In some families, there are other reasons for a child marriage, but the marriage will cause the girl to withdraw from school, so child marriage also contributes to lower education participation rates for girls.

The civil war and the factors contributing to child marriage, which have increased or emerged as a result of it, have also had an adverse impact on girls. Most Syrian families have faced continuous displacement and forced migration, the terror of airstrikes, discrimination against asylum seekers and their exploitation whether at border crossings or in strenuous working conditions. Fathers, mothers, couples, young men, and young women have all suffered on account of the war, but female children have suffered the most. These girls do not know how to react when they see their families in crisis, suffering from displacement, poverty, etc. They watch their fathers as they struggle to solve the crises faced by the family. This results in significant psychological distress and anxiety. As a result, she may consent to be married as a child even if she is not enthusiastic about the marriage because she may mistakenly think that the marriage will solve her or her family’s problems.

Some cases of child marriage are successful, so they do not always fail. There are cases of child marriages that have been successful, but we cannot speak about child marriages in terms of their success or failure. The practice must be stopped because it harms minor girls who are children. Marriages are regulated with regard to the participants’ age, physical and mental capability, etc. Married couples should be able to form stable families, to raise children, and to navigate the problems posed by married life in a healthy way without harming themselves or their children. This is not possible or is far less likely if the wife is still a minor.

A small minority felt that child marriage as it is practiced among displaced Syrians is natural and is not a problem to be solved. These respondents have had successful child marriages, but they felt that the main reason for this success was that they lived with the bride or groom’s parents, who took on most of the child-rearing responsibilities. At the same time, they would not consent for their own daughters to be married as minors and stipulated that child marriage should only take place in exceptional circumstances, at a minimum when the girl is both physically and psychologically mature. It is natural for people to justify child marriages that have already taken place—even if they are not totally convinced of the principle—because of the negative consequences that would result from divorce. Divorce is a far worse outcome for the minor female than for her ex-husband, as the interview data shows. She would find herself a divorcee at a young age and her ex-husband could be sentenced to prison for violating Turkish law. Her family would be broken up and she would be responsible for supporting herself in her parents’ home.

It is far better, therefore, to put an end to child marriage before it happens than to try to address the problem ex post facto. Legal regulation alone might not be enough to put a stop to the practice of child marriage because it is a multi-factorial problem and so the strategy to make it less frequent or put an end to it should be multi-pronged as well and respond to the intersectionality of factors leading to it. It should include reforming religious teachings to draw attention to the intensity and scale of the problems caused by child marriage. It should also focus on helping Syrian families find suitable work opportunities and resolve other problems that they face in the countries where they have sought asylum so that they can prioritize ending child marriage. It is also important to educate displaced Syrians about Turkish laws and encourage them to respect these laws to facilitate their integration into society. In order to address the problematic behaviors associated with communities of displaced Syrians, it is important to treat them with respect and avoid labeling any social practice as “backward.” The solution to the problem does not lie in attacking Syrian social customs. In fact, this may encourage people to cling to their social customs and insist on their validity. By applying an intersectional framework to the data we have collected, we are able to identify a set of factors that contribute to the practice of child marriage.