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 neighboring 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.
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. 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.
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 honor 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.
“Even at weddings [the Syrian families] invite Turkish neighbors 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.
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.”