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A husband and an apron instead of school
There are 2,000 child marriages in Serbia each year, It is feared that the number is even higher, because the statistics do not include persons under the age of 16, as a marriage before that age is prohibited by law, nor under-age common law marriages. Such marriages are a vicious cycle of poverty, illiteracy, family and social violence.
She finished four grades of elementary school, she knows all the letters, but cannot read. Later, she went to night school and now has an elementary school diploma. Her mother was a housewife, and her father worked in the company “21. Maj” in Rakovica. There were four children in the family: she and her three younger brothers. Her father married her off when she was 13 years old. Her name is Julija.
"He was given some money for me. All the money he received, he spent drinking in a bar, he could not buy a house, land, like other men have. As people say, the money from a daughter is cursed. The rule is that as much money as you take, you have to give back twice more if there is something wrong with the bride”, says Julija for “Vreme” and adds: “I had been married for a long time, we never had children. My husband was a drunk, I had not lived well. I worked from six in the morning to six in the evening. I was trying to always move forward, to be strong. My mother always supported me, but she could not go against my father. My father was very strict. I had been running away from my husband often, but my father would send me back. Once I gathered enough courage and, with the help of my younger brother, returned home. My brother threatened my father that I have to stay. I would recommend every woman to be brave and to fight for her life, to be independent.”
Julija is 56 years old, and married to her second husband for 12 years now. She has been working as a cleaning lady for 25 years, and found that job herself. Her case is not the only one, but is one of the few with a happy ending. The practice of child marriages still exists in Serbia, although the Constitution proclaims protection of the child “from psychological, physical, economic and any other form of exploitation or abuse”. (Article 64).
Official data show that there are 2,000 child marriages in Serbia each year. It is certain that the number is higher, because the statistics do not include persons under the age of 16, as a marriage before that age is prohibited by law, nor under-age common law marriages. Statistics also confirm that girls are more often exposed to forced and early marriages. This is illustrated by the fact that, in the last year, there were around 250 grooms from 16 to 18 years old, and the number of child brides is eight times higher - 1,800 of them. These are the data of the Republic Institute for Statistics and UNICEF. Child marriages represent a violation of human rights, threaten the development of girls and often lead to early pregnancies and social isolation. This is not only a question of tradition and customary law, but also of numerous other circumstances, primarily on the economic situation.
YOUNG AND MANIPULATED: “When you are talking to these children, they will say that they thought they were doing something good, a favour to their family, as they previously had no means of livelihood and education, they were experiencing an existential pressure”, says Jelena Hrnjak of NGO Atina. “They are manipulated to such extent that they believe they are doing something good for themselves or someone close to them. This is a product of unequal opportunities and chances, it is inherited transgenerationally. Girls suffer several types of violence simultaneously: sexual and labour exploitation. They are forced to hard physical work, begging, as well as various criminal activities in order to bring money to a person who exploits them. Girls came to us who could not distinguish colours and all the days of the week, they were completely educationally neglected.”
She points out that, contrary to ingrained prejudice, early marriages and sale of children are not exclusively tied to Roma population, that it is also happening to the girls from various rural areas in Serbia whose families are poor, marginalised and discriminated to such extent that they are selling them or forcing them into child marriage. NGO Atina, along with Divac Foundation, therefore launched a project “STOP to child marriages in Serbia” with the aim of raising public awareness about this issue and linking institutions to assist girls who are forced into child marriage. The attitude of this organisation is that a marriage before coming of age is an act of violence against the young person, which stops her ability to make her own choices and make decisions independently, to become educated and accomplished in a way she wants to be.
In addition to the Constitution, Serbia has ratified a number of international documents, and is currently preparing amendments of legislative and other acts, primarily the Criminal Code, the Family Law and the Law on Prohibition of Discrimination. In case of detecting child marriages, the police, centres for social work, educational and medical institutions are all obliged to react. A synchronised work of these institutions, and insisting on accountability, is necessary in order to improve the situation.
DELAYED REACTION: The Centre for Social Work usually reacts late in such cases, only after the report is filed. The fact that a child's education is interrupted, or that an under-aged girl makes a pregnancy appointment at a healthcare institution, is not a sufficient signal for the system if it is not recognised and reported. Procedures are long, and child marriage is not recognised as a separate criminal offence, but is subsumed under some other offence. A psychologist at the Belgrade City Centre for Social Work, Nada Maletić, says that they can respond only to the filed report or upon a request of the court to declare whether the under-aged person is capable for marriage: “We are trying to react like a fire brigade who puts out a fire that is already lambent. Our job is to determine whether a minor is capable of marriage, or to react to the report by going in the field to ascertain the situation. We are, as a team, assessing whether minors voluntarily want to enter into marriage, consider their life situation, as well as the partner whom they want to marry. This is achieved through an interview with a minor and by visiting the family. Then we direct them and give a recommendation. From our experience, the most common reason for entering into such a marriage is teen pregnancy. We continue monitoring the marriage only if we notice potential risks.”
Nada Maletić points out that schools often do not report that a child is absent from class, and that reports from high schools are not frequent, because secondary education is not compulsory in Serbia. A measure that can be imposed on parents by Centres for Social Work is corrective supervision. The problem, she says, is that there are not enough case managers in the Centres for Social Work, and that they can not always respond quickly.
Jelena Hrnjak says that their experience with Centres for Social Work is not positive: “We had situations where we would report a case of a missing girl to the Centre for Social Work, and it took them five days to go in the field and confirm that the girl is not there. Omissions lead to enormous consequences for the whole environment. Girls are giving birth to girls who are brought into a circle of powerlessness, whom no one asks anything, and who have no alternative. We are in need of a mechanism that will be able to detect the problem early on, even before it occurs, because this leads to stopping the growth and development of a child which is not fitting for the 21. century”, says Hrnjak.
A priority in working with these children is an assessment of their current situation, ensuring the conditions for education and choice of profession, visibility in the labour market, social inclusion. These are long-term processes. The most important thing is not to instil a problem in these girls, not to blame them because of what happened to them, not to read in the reports that they are problematic, and in the media that they themselves caused and wanted that, but to understand the context and circumstances in which it is happening to them. The vicious cycle of poverty, illiteracy, family and social violence of child marriages is hard to leave, but it is something that requires integration and involvement of the whole society.
For NGO Atina, text translated by Marija Pantelić
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