Özge Sebzeci

2017 - ongoing 

Since the eruption of the war in Syria in 2011, more than 5.6 million Syrians have fled chaos and violence. Some 3.5 million displaced Syrian refugees have settled in Turkey, creating the largest migrant crisis of our time. Half of the people affected are children. As we approach the tenth year of the devastatıng conflict in Syria, refugees settling in Turkey continue to face the challenge of remaining far from home and immersed in a foreign culture. Though some have thrived in their new home, others continue to struggle under the weight of tremendous economic problems, navigating foreign social systems and learning a new language.

“ I AM BEAUTIFUL BUT MY DESTINY...” looks at one of the most vulnerable groups affected by the realities of war and forced migration— underage girls. Many have lost their fathers, brothers, and other relatives whom they have traditionally relied on for support. They often have little to no financial support from family members and social services are limited. The men, and sometimes the women who do work, support their entire families through menial jobs, earning low wages, and are often subjected to exploitation through undocumented labor. Two out of five Syrian children currently living in Turkey are attending school. Young girls are often forced to leave school and as a result, are left isolated at home. Most of the girls speak little Turkish because of their limited interaction with the Turkish community. Add to this the untold effects of witnessing the many traumas of war and trying to build a new home in a new country and many young girls are left with few options to build a fulfilling life.

Marriage comes as one solution. Before the devastating conflict erupted in Syria, child marriage existed but it was significantly less common. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), child marriage rates are now estimated to be four times higher among Syrian refugees today than before the crisis began in 2011. Many families see it as a way to “protect” the girls from the outside world – and, in a way, to control them. Sometimes, parents marry off their young daughters to receive the dowry income which takes the financial burden off of raising them further. “If my father was alive he would never have given his permission," said one of the girls to me about her marriage. It is not uncommon for girls to marry men from their social circles, distant or even close relatives. People that they are familiar with are seen as a more trustworthy and suitable option as families want to protect these girls' “honor” from other men who might take advantage of them.

The legal age of marriage in Turkey is 18 without parental consent. Syrian marriages are typically held under the radar and without official documents from the state as only religious ceremonies, not formally recognized by the courts. Even though this is against Turkish law, the phenomenon is largely overlooked in Turkish society as part of the culture. While some of the young girls say they are happy in their union, many such marriages end in divorce. I met girls who were divorced as young as 15 years old and since the marriage is not legally binding, neither is the “divorce”. They require no official documents and one can simply say “I divorce you” three times to make it complete from a religious point of view. They leave a girl even more vulnerable and without inheritance or rights to alimony. They are also stigmatized and burdened with the shame of being “used” and if they have children, they are left with the burden of raising the child on their own.

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