Early marriages or child trafficking? – A story by Mugur Varzariu
For over ten years, early marriages among the Roma community have been a concern for me, an older issue that has been addressed without success by both local and international non-governmental organizations.
Erroneously and intentionally, based on various interests, the idea that these marriages represent a tradition has been perpetuated, causing actions to eradicate the phenomenon to be in vain, both from within and outside the community.
A phenomenon stemming from poverty and practised in the most vulnerable areas of the planet is not a tradition but, at most, a harsh historical reality. There are voices that claim the practice is widespread, even among affluent families.
Besides poverty, another reason for the existence and perpetuation of this criminal phenomenon is the lack of education, a reality that characterizes a significant part of even suspiciously affluent Roma families (families without education, without stable jobs but with immense incomes). These families, just like those in poverty, face the same issue: girls from such backgrounds lose their virginity at an increasingly young age (11-12 years). According to discussions with various representatives of the community, they are often not deflowered by a stranger but by a family member, a brother, or a cousin. To escape from this ‘burden,’ families are forced to marry them at increasingly young ages to ensure they are still virgins.
In a conversation with a young Roma, he was trying to validate the phenomenon as a tradition through a survey in which a respondent claimed to have paid €200,000 for a girl.
In traditional families, girls are married for an amount ranging from 30-40 to 80-100 yellow gold coins. Traditional families even engage in engagements at the age of 2-3, but this is also an opportunity to collect some money. In other cases, the amounts range from €10,000 to €20,000.
I don’t believe anyone has ever paid €200,000 for a girl. This statement should be seen at most as a dubious settlement in which they made it seem like the money had passed from one hand to another. Most likely, we are dealing with a flawed response (a lie) that should have been excluded from the study.
Unfortunately, failed integration policies, the international economic situation on one hand, and realities such as forced evictions, discrimination, and segregation on the other, have led to an increase in the number of people living on the brink of poverty in Romania. As a result, in my opinion, this reprehensible phenomenon has experienced a period of resurgence in recent years.
I believe it’s time not to look on impassively as generations of young girls fall victim to this phenomenon, which, in my view, is no different from human trafficking.
The abrupt end of childhood and access to education has extremely serious short-term, medium-term, and long-term consequences.
Besides their personal suffering and trauma, I believe the entire community has only lost out due to this growing phenomenon.
Romania has fairly clear and strict legislation regarding the legal age for marriage. So, what we’re dealing with is not a legal loophole but a gross, deliberate, and criminal non-enforcement of the law.
The police, Child Protection, and in all cases where a religious service is officiated and the Church are three official institutions that simply turn a blind eye to these practices.
Besides ignorance and racism as general reasons for perpetuating this situation, I believe some of the police are either in collusion or pursuing certain interests in the areas where they operate, and as a result, they are compelled to accept the status quo.
The Church sells the fate of the girls for money. Although they are not legally allowed to officiate the religious ceremony without a marriage certificate, unscrupulous priests demand a statement from the family on their own responsibility, stating that they have submitted the documents to the town hall. The same priests, for a fee, advise the family to state in the declaration that they cannot postpone the wedding because they have paid an advance to the restaurant and the musicians and because the girl is pregnant. Covered by this worthless piece of paper, these criminals, the priests, sing with confidence and officiate, content with themselves, the trafficking of minors. If you were to see how these girls, willingly or not, are humiliated by wedding guests, you wouldn’t rush to kiss their hands at Sunday service.
I believe that for those in Child Protection, Romani children are simply not considered children.
Unfortunately, such a phenomenon is extremely difficult to stop as not even prestigious international media outlets like CNN understand that a practice stemming from poverty and lack of education should not be elevated to the status of tradition in any way. Labelling child trafficking as a tradition causes society’s condemnation reaction to be almost paralyzed. Typically, we look with indulgence at anything related to tradition.
To be clear, accepting early marriages as a tradition is as criminal as accepting the sale of underage girls for the practice of prostitution, as it happens in Thailand or as vaginal mutilation (clitoridectomy) practised in certain parts of the African continent.
About Mugur Varzariu
From the outset of his career, through assignments in Syria, Tunisia and Egypt, Romanian-born photographer Mugur Varzariu understood the importance of his trade and made the decision that shaped the future of his photography.
“I could either follow everyone else or follow my conscience,” he explains. “I felt the impact of my pictures on one hand and the suffering of the people I was photographing on the other. So I had to find another way to operate.”
Consciously choosing not to join photojournalists jumping from one story to the next, he sought out stories that remained untold and delved deeper into his subjects than the superficial contact the industry normally allows. Deciding instead to tell the stories of those left behind, the unrepresented ones existing forgotten, ignored on the edges of our societies. Roma communities, prostitution, human trafficking, abandoned children, the elderly, obesity, Holocaust survivors and post-communist era social issues have all been explored in Mugur Varzariu’s work.
He juggles corporate assignments and magazine shoots with work on humanitarian issues. “When I work, I am constantly aware of the economic pressures on me as a family man,” he explains, “ and “I refuse to waste the time and suffering of my subjects by not being prepared. Working with those principles in my mind means I never, ever squander an opportunity. I must get it right, for their sake and for mine.”
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