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Germany considers law to invalidate Muslim refugees' underaged marriages

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The German government is preparing legislation to outlaw child marriage, an accepted practice among the country’s more than 1 million Muslim refugees. The proposed bill is likely to become law because it has the support of the Social Democrats and the Christian Democratic Union, which are the majority parties in the country’s ruling coalition.

This legislation reflects a larger cultural clash between Western democratic values and those of traditional Muslims. Some Germans see their core beliefs coming under siege.

These differences are leading to a rise in Islamophobia and acts of violence. According to a government report, hate crimes soared by 77 percent between 2014 and 2015, with 1,050 recorded cases of arson against refugee homes in 2015.

No one who comes here has the right to put his cultural values or religious beliefs above our law.

- German Justice Minister Heiko Maas

Germany’s 4.7 million Muslims comprise 5.8 percent of the country’s population, according to the Pew Research Center. 

There are 1,450 known Muslim couples in Germany in which at least one spouse, usually female, is underaged. In 361 of these marriages, at least one partner is under 14. The legal age for marriage in Germany is 18.

The number of such marriages may be much higher, according to Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster.

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The proposed legislation would deny legal status to any marriage in which a partner is under the age of 16 and would require a hearing in family court if a partner is between 16 and 18.

According to Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee’s office in Berlin, the abject poverty and insecurity of life in the refugee camps in the Middle East are driving Muslim families to push their daughters to marry younger for protection. Berger believes almost half of the marriages in the refugee camps involve children under the age of 16.

“A law that would annul these marriages leaves the young women very vulnerable, and some already have children,” said Berger.

A recent court ruling in Bamberg, Bavaria, upheld the legal status of a marriage between a 21-year-old Syrian and his 15-year-old cousin because the marriage had taken place in Syria and was legal according to that country’s laws.

The proposed legislation is designed to invalidate such marriages in Germany.

Berger’s concerns are shared by Thomas von der Osten-Sacken, the co-founder of Wadi, a Frankfurt-based non-profit that fights for human rights and the development of a democratic civil society in the Middle East.

“Often the young mother’s own parents are dead, and she is badly traumatized and in need of help,” he said, adding that, in some cases, it is better to keep the family intact, especially when the young wife has a child.

Critics of these marriages include conservative Christians and feminists, who view such marriages as oppressive and demeaning to the underaged brides. A new political party, the Alternative for Germany, has achieved remarkable success with an anti-Muslim message.

“No one who comes here has the right to put his cultural values or religious beliefs above our law,” said Minister of Justice Heiko Maas, a Social Democrat whose ministry drafted the bill.

“Children should be in school, not in marriages,” Piotr Malachowski, spokesman for the Justice Ministry, told Fox News, noting that these young girls are not mature enough to make an informed decision whether to wed, and that many of them are in forced marriages.

According to Malachowski, Germany has the right to define marriage according to German law, even for unions that are legal in other countries. He gave as an example gay marriage, which may be acceptable in one country and not another.

Women’s rights groups are also adamantly opposed to such marriages.

“Girls that are married early are robbed of their childhood,” said Monika Mitchell, an official with Terre des Femmes, a Berlin-based women’s rights organization. “And they are more likely to drop out of school.”

According to Mitchell, the lack of schooling makes it harder for girls to get jobs and more likely for them to be totally dependent on their husbands.

In Muslim countries the marriage of very young girls is common, says Seyran Ates, a German woman of Turkish origin and a practicing Muslim, possibly inspired by one of the Prophet Mohammad’s first wives having been only 9 years old.

Ates, a lawyer and human rights activist, said there is nothing in Islamic theology that supports the young marriage of girls. She has braved attacks by Muslim extremists because of her work on behalf of women.

“Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, we have had a dark century for all of Islam, and no enlightenment,” she said. “Look at the relationship between men and women in Europe and North America 200 years ago … that’s the condition we have in Muslim society today.”

The lack of democracy in Muslim societies, she explained, made matters worse since there are few opportunities for women outside the home.

Ates is not optimistic about greater freedom for young Muslim women in Germany. She pointed out that most of the imams in Germany’s 2,500 mosques support child marriage.

Donald Snyder was a news producer at NBC for 27 years and has been a freelance writer since his retirement. He specializes in Germany and Eastern Europe.