“I am married. I didn’t want [to get married], I was forced by my parents. And I got married very young — when I was 15.” These are the words of Suzana Zaja, spoken in a 2010 documentary about early marriages within the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities. Activists suggest that the film — initiated by the Network of Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian Women Organizations of Kosovo (RrOGRAEK) and supported by the government’s Agency for Gender Equality — is one of the first initiatives that tried to open the debate about child marriage in Kosovo.
It is also one of the rare initiatives by governmental bodies to tackle the issue, which has never been a government priority; reports suggest that the government tends to justify its inaction by suggesting that this is a “tradition” among Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities, while overlooking that the issue affects all communities.
But, although not as widespread as in the past, a video published on social media last month highlighted that child marriage is not limited to non-majority communities. The wedding of two Kosovar Albanian minors (aged 13 and 14) from Malisheva, with images of family members and guests celebrating the union as if nothing unusual was happening, caused outrage among Kosovar citizens on social media. The debate on child marriages gained momentum and briefly became the topic of the day for every media outlet.
Following the media coverage of the Malisheva wedding, Kosovo Police and social workers stepped in, with the media reporting that the parents are being investigated for a suspected breach of the Criminal Code; the newlywed minors have been separated and can only reunite when they reach the legal age of marriage. According to the legislative framework, would-be spouses must both be at least aged 18, although the minimum age drops to 16 with parental consent.
A worldwide problem
Kosovo isn’t the only country in the world that has a problem with child marriages.
Each year worldwide 15 million girls marry before they reach the age of 18, with around 720 million women alive today who were married before the age of 18; it is estimated that if the current trend continues, this number will reach 1.2 billion by 2050.
Earlier this month, on the International Day of the Girl, Human Rights Watch called upon countries around the world to join their call for an end to child marriage.
Kosovar legislation is in line with the majority of Western legislation, although according to international convention, marriages involving a person below the age of 18 are in most cases considered a violation of children’s and human rights.
Visare Mujko-Nimani, programme specialist at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) office in Kosovo, believes that the law in Kosovo should be standardized to prohibit all child marriages. “As UNFPA, we want [the minimum age of marriage in] the legislation to be strictly 18 years,” she says.
According to official data from Kosovo Agency of Statistics, 105 early marriages were legally registered last year and 95 in 2014, in all cases involving girls aged 16 or 17 marrying older men. However precise statistical data is unavailable as in Kosovo it is common for couples to complete the legalities of getting married separately from the traditional wedding ceremony — sometimes even years later.
As a result, Mujko-Nimani says that immediate registration is particularly rare in child marriage: “Ninety nine percent of these weddings aren’t recorded in the civil registry. They don’t go to get legally married. So, regarding the data on the frequency of early marriages, it doesn’t even include the [legal] marriages of those aged 16 [or 17, with parental consent].”
Human rights and health organizations worldwide repeatedly try to shed light on the devastating consequences of child marriages, which include higher risks during pregnancy and childbirth. According to UNICEF a girl under the age of 15 is five times more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth than a woman in her 20s. When a mother is under 18, her baby’s chance of dying in the first year of life is 60 percent greater than that of a baby born to a mother older than 19.
Girls who are married at an earlier age are also documented in a 2012 UNFPA study on child marriage in Kosovo to be more prone to contracting sexual diseases and to becoming victims of domestic and sexual violence, as older husbands attempt to enforce obedience. Many of the child spouses who were interviewed by UNFPA reported suffering domestic violence “several times.”
“An early marriage is particularly a problem for the girl. She will get married before solving the issue of her career, before many other issues and she will find herself with problems that she isn’t capable of solving.”
Mujko-Nimani says that consequences of child marriages also extend beyond solely health impacts. “We try to raise awareness that a child must be prevented by all means from having to bear a child [and] from having to stop their education, as children of the same age are still at school,” she says.
Luljeta Demolli, executive director of Kosovar Gender Studies Center (KGSC) also highlights that when underage girls are forced to marry it deprives them of their childhood as they are often required to take domestic and motherhood responsibilities before reaching the age of maturity. “An early marriage is particularly a problem for the girl,” she says. “She will get married … before solving the issue of her career, before many other issues, and she will find herself with problems that she isn’t capable of solving.”
Patriarchy and poverty
Figures from Kosovo Agency of Statistics suggest that the average age at which Kosovar men get married is 31, while for Kosovar women it is 27. However given the prevalence of marriages not being registered at the time of the ceremony, the data is somewhat misleading.
Women in particular often end up getting married at a very young age due to conservative and patriarchal traditions that link a woman’s marriage to family honor. “When I was in Mamush [a municipality close to Prizren] in 2015, I asked in the municipality if there was a woman under 35 that isn’t married,” says Demolli. “And there wasn’t.”
She adds that child marriage is very common in areas like Mamush, Dragash and other areas close to the Kosovo-Albania border and in rural areas in general, where welfare monitoring is poor and communities and individuals are well known to each other.
Although Kosovo’s legislation is in line with many Western countries, activists point out that a lack of effective welfare monitoring — whereby social workers check on the welfare of underage spouses — by government agencies makes marriages of 16- to 18-year-olds particularly problematic. “Just think if this happens in isolated areas, such as Dragash or Opoja,” says Demolli. “The social worker would know the family and would not report it. They could be a good professional, but smaller places prohibit the monitoring of families to a large extent as they won’t report what is happening with the young girl. This is why the government needs to be more vigilant with its policies.”
Crime and punishment
Where a person is compelled to enter into a marriage against their will, it is a criminal offense known as ‘Forced marriage.’ Most forced marriages involve a child.
According to the Criminal Code of Kosovo, a person who forces a child (under the age of 18) to marry should be imprisoned for between two and 10 years. When the offense is committed by a parent or guardian the prison sentence should be between 5 and 10 years where the child is aged 14 to 16, or at least 15 years if the child is under 14.
Where a wedding ceremony has taken place but the marriage has not been legally married, any potential offense would fall into the category of ‘Extramarital community.’
A person, including a parent or guardian, who permits or induces a child to ‘cohabit in extramarital community’ with another person should be imprisoned for between 5 and 20 years where the child is aged 14 to 16, or for a minimum of 15 years where the child is under 14.
Another factor leading to child marriage is Kosovo’s limited economic opportunities, which drives some poorer households to marry off their daughters as an economic survival strategy; marriages are particularly arranged between underage girls and Kosovars living in the diaspora.
Such marriages aren’t always forced against the girl’s will. In rural and isolated areas, girls can also view an arranged marriage abroad as an attractive alternative to escape poverty and to help their families.
“It is the parent’s fault because they see it as the solution to their problems and their poverty, it is the government’s fault for allowing this widescale poverty,” says Demolli. “This is seen as legitimate in our society. The parent will say ‘my daughter is very capable, she is helping us.’ It is tolerated and not-punished. And the social worker or the [official] that conducts the marriage sees this and doesn’t say anything. They don’t punish it because the society doesn’t.”
According to the UNFPA study arranged marriages with persons outside Kosovo do not always turn out as anticipated: While men living abroad may believe that a young Kosovar woman or girl will be obedient and accept traditional gender roles in the home, girls may see life outside Kosovo as a chance to escape tradition with the disconnect between spouses’ expectations sometimes leading to divorce.
“She needs to take care of the well being of the family — what a burden that is for a 16-year-old girl,” says Demolli. “And then she will need to take care of all the domestic work and also for her husband’s family. Because she will send money to her family and for that she needs to be very obedient to her husband and all of this becomes a chain of oppression. She becomes a repressed woman and will suffer.”
The phenomenon of child marriages in Kosovo is especially prevalent amongst non-majority communities. As non-Albanian communities lack effective inclusion in education, social, economic and political life, women from these communities — particularly Gorani, Bosnian, Turkish, Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian women — face double discrimination: from their own community and from society as a whole.
“Girls don’t know their own rights,” says Shpresa Agushi, executive director of RrOGRAEK. “They don’t ask for their rights, but also the mindset, similarly to the Balkan mindset, is that women must endure everything, even when their husbands abuse them.”
Shpresa Agushi’s organization RrOGRAEK initiated a 2010 documentary that attempted to open the debate on child marriages in Kosovo. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
Agushi says that during the research for their 2010 documentary, they met young girls, not older than 13, who would already be married. In one case, researchers on the ground were threatened by an abusive husband when they tried to get an interview from his wife who was married at an early age.
Demolli points out how the deplorable living conditions of extensive families in small spaces drives many parents to marry their daughters at a very young age. “I consider it as the government’s fault that it hasn’t solved the problem of housing, because it is the right of a family to have their own shelter and not for many generations to be living together,” says Demolli.
The custom of baba hak payment — where a man in some way compensates the parents of a girl in order to secure her as his bride — is also still a phenomenon among Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities. According to Demolli this is one of the main reasons behind forced marriages among these communities, where girls are married against their will.
The baba hak usually finances expenses related to the marriage, such as clothes, a henna night, or paying the dowry if the bride’s family cannot afford it. However, Agushi says that the most disturbing aspect is when the parents are paid money directly by the groom. “There are cases where different amounts are asked for and the family uses the money for their personal expenses without contributing to their daughter,” says Agushi.
“During the research on the ground we saw that we aren’t dealing with tradition but with non-implementation of legislation.”
The value of the baba hak can be worth thousands of euros; the younger and prettier that the girls is considered to be, the higher the price. Families are therefore incentivised to arrange the marriage of their daughter at a young age, in order to secure a higher payment.
According to the UNFPA study, when authorities investigate suspected cases of child marriage, community leaders sometimes intervene by negotiating with police and parents. Activists insist that it is the government’s responsibility to protect the best interests of the child.
“During the research on the ground we saw that we aren’t dealing with tradition but with non-implementation [of legislation] and lack of knowledge of existing laws in Kosovo,” says Agushi. “So, people live their life the way they want, because there aren’t sentences, there isn’t law implementation.”
Issues of rule of law are wide ranging and affect all citizens, just as issues of economic and social well being are cross cutting throughout society. However the evidence shows that when there are failures it is those who are the most vulnerable, such as individuals in child marriages, who particularly suffer.K
Featured image: Save the Children.