Happiness is not for sale

Many girls who are forced to get married, just like Anita (14), spend their lives deprived of their rights.

Ivana Miljkovic
Anita lives in daily fear of revenge husband's family
UNICEF Srbija/2018/Shubuckl

07 June 2018

Belgrade – “I was mistreated there and beaten and everything... I was not allowed to take my child in my lap. I had to clean, cook, wash the feet of my husband's brother, his wife, and my father-in-law. To wipe their feet and put socks on their feet. To get up at 4 a.m. and go to bed at midnight.”

This is how Anita Savic*, now thirty-two years old, begins the story about her marriage which started when she was only 14.

She grew up in a large and poor Roma family, with three sisters and three brothers, she had to obey her parents unquestioningly. That's the custom, she explains, that if the parents make an agreement, the children must get married.

Her brother, she says, also got married when he was 15, to a girl who was 13. Her uncle and her parents, without asking her, found her a rich husband, 9 years her senior, from another town.

“I remember everything clearly. I was at school that day, in the Serbian language class. Dad came and told me some people were looking for me, that they like me and that I have to marry their son. I told them – no! They just replied – you have to!” Anita recalls.

Her story is not an isolated one.

In Serbia, one in 6 girls from Roma settlements get married before the age of 15, while as many as 57% of girls get married before reaching adulthood. The reason is often poverty and the fact that parents get money for them.


Expensive unfreedom

Anita had never before seen her future husband and his family. But her first memory of them is the threats her parents received; in case that they do not fulfil what was agreed upon. And they fulfilled it. They sold her.

"It's our custom to buy the bride, to give gold and clothes. And that's not just some money, but a lot. My father did not want to take much, only 8,000 Euros."

Although she was engaged at 14, she lived with her parents until she was 16. But she didn't have a normal life even during those two years, she says.

“I was not allowed to go to school, or to go out. I had to just sit at home. I was not allowed to go out in the street with my friend. I always had to wear a red shawl. That was their sign that I was married, something like a wedding ring”, Anita explains.

When she left her parents’ home, all hell broke loose, as she put it. Although she never had a problem with her husband, who often worked abroad, his family, she claims, abused her both physically and mentally.

In this “hell” she gave birth to three children. Anita gave birth to her first child at the age of 19, the second at 20, and the third at the age of 23.

In the meantime they made her renounce her parents, whom she didn't see for years. They beat her whenever they wanted, and on one occasion they hurt her with a knife so she had to stay in the hospital.

“His brothers were drug addicts and drug dealers. When they were on drugs or drunk, they would abuse me. They would forbid me to play with my children. They would tell me – why are you wearing that? Your leg was showing. Why did you take off the shawl? Why aren't you wearing make-up? Why did you get up at 5?” Anita recalls and clenches her fists.

Many girls who are forced to get married, just like Anita, spend their lives deprived of their rights, dependent on their husbands and their families. They are deprived of their basic rights to health, education and security.


A cry with no answer

Anita continued to live such a life for 4 years and 10 months. She couldn't take it anymore.

Meanwhile, her husband became mentally ill. He couldn't help her.

Anita told her story to doctors and to the police. Nobody took any actions.

Although child marriages are forbidden in the Western Balkans, they are ignored because people “shut their eyes”; either out of disregard, or because they accept them “as a Roma tradition, their internal issue”.

A small number of interventions related to child marriages have been implemented, mostly by women's civil society organizations.


Escape into uncertainty

Anita Savic was fighting alone. The last straw was her brother-in-law’s request to become his wife. She ran away that night.

After a couple of days her husband’s family took her children away with the promise to return them the day after. That was the last time she saw them.

They are now aged 14, 12 and 11 years old. Since then, she has been aching for them every day and living in fear of revenge.

“When I ran away to my parents, we were afraid to go to sleep for three months. They were paying people to catch me, to kill me. This is still going on today”, Anita says.

Although she has remarried in the meantime and given birth to a daughter, Anita still cannot sleep peacefully.

Her only wish now is to get her children back. To have them live with her. She has tried to accomplish this in different ways. Without success. Now she's fighting for them through the Centre for Social Work.


Urgent response needed from the state and society

Anita has never returned to school, and has two poorly paid jobs. She rarely sees her parents. She says she feels the scars on her soul every day. She's hoping that one day she will forget it all. Anita has just one message.

“Parents should never sell their daughters. They should not have it their way, but rather let the daughter decide on her own when and who she will marry. I think this can change today.”

Until recently, the problem of child marriage was almost invisible in Serbia. Aside from UNICEF's Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, and several smaller studies in certain municipalities, there is barely any reliable data on the prevalence of child marriage.

A small number of projects related to child, early and forced marriages have also been implemented. The problem has been recognized and there is an urgent need for different stakeholders, the Roma communities and the civil sector, schools, centres for social work, the police, and the health care system to become involved so that such marriages can be prevented in the future.

UNICEF has already defined the key strategies for combating child marriages. They include empowering girls with information, skills and support networks, educating and mobilizing parents and community members, helping girls and their families to focus on their economic empowerment, improving the accessibility and quality of formal education for girls, strengthening and facilitating the functioning of the legal and policy frameworks, and improving the knowledge and evidence bases.

These will be possible thanks to generous financial contribution by the Korean Committee for UNICEF.


* The name has been changed to protect her identity.