Forced Marriage Overseas: Syria
Individuals from the United States will likely face substantial challenges if trying to avoid and/or escape marriages in Syria. The ongoing civil war in country, causing significant internal and external displacement, has severely impacted women and girls in Syria. Gender based violence and discrimination, including forced marriage, honor violence, rape, and domestic abuse, has increased, and there is little protection from authorities due to the ongoing crisis.1
For further information and guidance for individuals from the U.S. that are facing or fleeing a forced marriage in Syria, please contact the Forced Marriage Initiative.
Marriage in Syria
Women and girls in Syria have limited rights when entering into or attempting to dissolve a marriage. For the majority Muslim population, marriage and divorce are governed by the Personal Status Act (and relevant amendments),2 and heard by Shari’ah courts.3 While under the law adult women are freely able to enter into a marriage contract and religious leaders typically ask the parties before the marriage whether or not they consent, social pressures prevent women from contracting as they please.4 The age of eligibility for marriage is 18 for men and 17 for women. However, a judge can authorize a marriage if a boy 15 years old or a girl 13 years old has reached physical maturity. A male guardian must provide consent for a woman getting married under the age of 17.5
Divorce is allowed under Syria’s personal status laws; however, men are able to obtain divorces more easily than women. While men can obtain divorce through the talaq (telling his wife he is divorcing her three times), women must go through a more challenging legal process, and also often forfeit property to exit the marriage. Certain portions of the personal status law do not apply to Christians, Jews, Druze and members of other groups, who have their own specific religious laws and courts.6
The practice of “summer marriages” or Mut’ah (temporary marriages not registered in court) also occurs in Syria among Shi’a Muslims.7 These marriage are usually short term, involve verbal agreements and payment of a bride price, and are often forced on young women and girls whose families need financial help. UN and Jordanian relief agencies reported that there were 500 underage Syrian girls wed as child brides in 2012 in temporary marriages.8 Women involved in such practices are generally ostracized by society and are unable to later marry under traditional practice.9
The civil war in Syria has had a particularly negative impact on women’s marital rights. Early marriages were not uncommon in Syria even before the present crisis, with UNICEF estimating that during the period from 2002 to 2012, three percent of Syrian girls were married by the age of 15 and 13 percent were married by the age of 18,10 with underage marriage more prevalent in rural regions.11 However, the conflict has led to an increased number of forced marriages for Syrian women and girls living, particularly in refugee camps near its borders with neighboring countries, such as Jordan.12 Typically, the families of these young women and girls believe that a forced marriage is a way to provide protection for their daughters, a possible escape from the instability, and a way for the family to earn some money in the form of a bride price.13 Recently, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) fighters in Raqqa, northern Aleppo, and some border areas, have also subjected Syrian women and girls to forced marriages, among other human rights violations.14
Potential Risks and Protections in Country
It is highly unlikely that women and girls facing forced marriages will be able to access needed protection in Syria, particularly given the continued internal conflict. The Syrian penal code generally does not protect women from violence – marital rape is not a crime, and women have no recourse from domestic abuse. Women are discouraged from presenting their claims in police stations, staffed largely by male police officers, for fear of experiencing shame or sexual harassment. Moreover, victims of domestic violence receive little sympathy from police officers. When the police do get involved, they usually try to reconcile the husband and wife. Social barriers prevent equal access to the judicial system, and women rarely press criminal charges against men in courts.15
Honor crimes – which can involve killing or other serious violent acts against females that are accused of dishonoring the family – are also not uncommon in Syria, and perpetrators receive more lenient sentences than the standard penalties for criminal assault or murder. There is growing pressure to change these laws, and recent amendments have slightly increased punishments in such situations.16
Syria used to have a developed network of agencies and hotlines that provided services to victims of gender-based violence, including legal services, counseling, and shelter, but these are now difficult to access due to the ongoing civil war.17
Special Challenges in Returning to the United States
Syria’s border security and exit control situation is in a constant state of flux as a result of the civil war. On occasion, the families of Syrian-American women visiting Syria have attempted to prevent them from leaving the country, generally in order to compel women to marry. Although under Syrian law a woman do not need her husband’s explicit consent every time she wishes to leave Syria, a Syrian husband may file a request with the Interior Ministry to prevent his wife from leaving the country, regardless of her nationality.18 Once such legal orders are in place, the United States government cannot help U.S. citizens leave Syria. Children of Syrian fathers must have their fathers’ permission to leave Syria, even if the parents are separated or divorced and even if the mother has been granted full custody by a Syrian court.19
- The Tahirih Justice Center Forced Marriage Initiative
We are available to help individuals from the United States who are facing or fleeing forced marriage in Syria, including providing phone, text, and email support, connecting with the U.S. government and local resources, and coordinating shelter and services back in the United States.
- The U.S. State Department
Effective February 6, 2012, the U.S. Embassy suspended operations and closed for normal services within Syria. The Government of the Czech Republic is currently protecting U.S. interests in Syria although the services are limited to emergency situations only. For updated information and travel alerts, please visit the department’s webpage on international travel in Sudan.
- Embassy of the Czech Republic – Damascus
Contact the embassy in the case of an emergency.
Tel: (962) (6) 590-6500 (US Embassy in Jordan)
Email: USIS_damascus@embassy.mzv.cz (US services at Czech Embassy)
1 UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, List of issues and questions in relation to the second periodic report of the Syrian Arab Republic (October 2013), available at http://www.refworld.org/docid/52dd2f8c4.html (last visited August 29, 2014); Department of State, Syria 2013 Human Rights Report, at 35, available at http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/220588.pdf.
2 UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, Initial Report of States Parties: Syria (August 2005), available at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/reports.htm#s (last visited August 29, 2014).
3 Syria (August 19, 2005), available at http://www.reunite.org/edit/files/Islamic%20Resource/Syria%20Text.pdf, 2, (last visited February 5, 2014).
4 U.S. Department of State, Forced Marriage Information Flyer- Syria, available at http://travel.state.gov/travel/tips/safety/safety_5487.html, (last visited February 1, 2014).
5 Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa 2010: Syria, (2010), at 8, available at http://www.freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/inline_images/Syria.pdf (last visited February 5, 2014).
6 Azizah al-Hibri, Redefining Muslim Women’s Rights, 12 Am. U. J. Int’l L. & Pol’y 1, 3, 24 (1997); Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa 2010: Syria, (2010), at 9, 17, available at http://www.freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/inline_images/Syria.pdf (last visited February 5, 2014); UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, Initial Report of States Parties: Syria (August 2005), at 89-90, available at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/reports.htm#s (last visited August 29, 2014).
7 Nadia Muhanna, Marriages of Convenience (February 20, 2011), available at http://nadiamuhanna.wordpress.com/2011/02/10/marriages-of-convenience/, (last visited February 5, 2014).
8 Sara Yasmin Anwar, Syrian Crisis: Temporary Marriages and Sexual Exploitation, (November 29, 2013), available at http://levant.tv/blog-posts/syrian-crisis-temporary-marriages-and-sexual-exploitation-by-sara-yasmin-anwar/, (last visited March 26, 2014); Maha Abu Shama, Early marriage and harassment of Syrian refugee women and girls in Jordan (September 5, 2013), available at http://livewire.amnesty.org/2013/09/05/early-marriage-and-harassment-of-syrian-refugee-women-and-girls-in-jordan/ (last visited March 26, 2014).
9 Nadia Muhanna, Marriages of Convenience (February 20, 2011), available at http://nadiamuhanna.wordpress.com/2011/02/10/marriages-of-convenience/, (last visited February 5, 2014).
10 UNICEF, At a glance: Syrian Arab Republic, available at http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/syria_statistics.html (last visited March 27, 2014).
11 LiveWire: Amnesty’s Global Human Rights Blog: Early marriage and harassment of Syrian refugee women and girls in Jordan (posted September 5, 2013), available at http://livewire.amnesty.org/2013/09/05/early-marriage-and-harassment-of-syrian-refugee-women-and-girls-in-jordan/.
12 Karen Leigh and Mohammed Sergie, The Bride Price of Syria’s Refugees (December 5, 2012), available at http://beta.syriadeeply.org/2012/12/syrian-female-refugees-face-poverty-assault-and-forced-marriages/ (last visited February 5, 2014).
13 Id; Beth McLeod, Syrian refugees ‘sold for marriage’ in Jordan, (May 10, 2013), available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22473573, (last visited February 5, 2014).
14 Asaad Hanna, Syrian Girls Forced to Marry ISIS Fighters, US News (May 14, 2014), available at http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/05/14/syrian-girls-forced-to-marry-isis-fighters (accessed June 30, 2014).
15 Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa 2010: Syria, (2010), at 9, 17, available at http://www.freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/inline_images/Syria.pdf (last visited February 5, 2014); Human Rights Watch, Syria, available at http://www.hrw.org/world-report-2006/syria (accessed June 27, 2014).
16 Syria, Growing Pressure to Tackle Domestic Abuse, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, (November 11, 2008), available at http://www.wlumlorg.node/4945; Euromed Gender Equality Programme, National Situation Analysis Report: Women’s Human Rights and Gender EqualitySyria (2008-2011), at 17-18, available at http://www.enpi-info.eu/files/publications/Situation%20Analysis_Report_Syria.pdf (accessed June 27, 2014); Syria: “Honor” Killing Sentence Increased (February 10, 2011), available at http://www.stopvaw.org/syria_honor_killing_sentence_tripled.html (accessed June 27, 2014).
17 Syria, Growing Pressure to Tackle Domestic Abuse, Women Living Under Muslim Laws (November 11, 2008), available http://www.wlumlorg.node/4945.
18 United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012: Syria, available at: http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/humanrightsreport/index.htm#wrapper.
19 Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S Passports and International Travel: Syria, available at http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/country/syria.html (last visited February 5, 2014).