The Centre of Competance against Forced Marriage, or Zwangsheirat, a Zurich-based support organization for victims of the practice, has uncovered 119 cases of marriage involving minors (aged under 18) this year so far.
Of those, 26 cases involved victims under the age of 16 — below the age of sexual consent — and some as young as ten, said the centre.
The latest figures are a marked rise, given only five cases involving victims under 16 were discovered between 2005, when the centre began its work, and 2015.
The majority of this year’s victims are immigrants to Switzerland from Eritrea, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, said the centre’s director Anu Sivaganesan in an interview with NZZ am Sonntag.
Speaking to The Local, Sivaganesan said the rise in the number of cases discovered could be partly explained by the increase in asylum seekers coming to Switzerland.
But it was also due to increased awareness of the issue among doctors, social workers and teachers in Switzerland since the country amended its laws on forced marriage in 2013.
“So far, unfortunately, there is no system in order to discover minor marriages in Switzerland,” she said.
“At our counseling services our cases are reported directly by afflicted persons – for example we had last week a report by a 14-year-old from canton Schwyz, who has informed us independently. Most reports we get are from, for example, schools, specialized services, victim protection as well as child and adult protection authorities and asylum reception and procedure centres.”
Many minors who were forced into marriage outside Switzerland report themselves to the authorities once they arrive in the country, she said, because being in a place they consider safe allows them to “dare to oppose” their situation.
Once identified, the centre works with victims to separate them from their spouse and “give minors back a part of their childhood,” said Sivaganesan.
The act of forcing a person into marriage or a civil partnership is illegal in Switzerland and carries a jail term of at least five years.
Consensual marriage is illegal for anyone under 18.
Zwangsheirat is now calling for the law to change so that any marriage involving a minor that took place outside the country is automatically annulled if the couple live in Switzerland.
Currently, Swiss law provides that such marriages should be annulled “unless the continuation of the marriage is in the overriding interest of this spouse”.
But Sivaganesan says this exemption to the law is “dangerous” and all minor marriages should be systematically annulled.
“In order to prevent such harmful practices we propose that there should be no consideration of interest in Switzerland, instead minor marriages should be annulled as it is practised in the Netherlands,” she said.
“A marriage before the age of consent is abuse.”