Netherlands: Married at thirteen

Why did she go back to her land of origin, twice even? Altuntas: “The Dutch authorities didn’t give her any feeling of security. They had underestimated the danger and Suat felt it.”

The last moments of Suat in the Netherlands, as they could have been: a Middle-Eastern family passing through passport inspection at Schipol. Suat is almost 18. Because of her the family is remigrating. Besides her father, who remains in the Netherlands as breadwinner. What went on in Suat’s head? Half a year later, social workers don’t know whether she’s alive. The remigration took them completely by surprise.

Suat, 18 years old, has already lived an adult’s life. She had been married off, probably when she was 13, maybe when she was 15, it remains unclear if it was in the Netherlands or in her land of origin. The ‘wedding’ started off a life of rape, abuse, shelters and social help. Professionals have been discussing her case for years, and yet it went wrong. Since March, Suat has disappeared without a trace. The police is preparing a case against her husband.

In the reconstruction, Dutch newspaper Trouw met a lot of silence, denials and requests not to publish ‘in the interests of the residents of the Hague’, because of ‘the girl’s safety’ or for the sake of the criminal case. One person broke the code of silence. Social worker Celal Altuntas spoke to the paper about Suat. The police of Haaglanden responded with anger and intimidation.

Altuntas was until recently a member of the Core Team of Honor Related Violence (KEG), which is a collaborative effort of the police and other authorities. In a KEG training session, on May 14 2009, the police started a pilot with Suat’s case-file. Trouw has the text. Altuntas recognizes the story. In November 2008 he urgently advised the girl, then in a shelter, against returning to her parents. The Youth Service threw that to the winds. Altuntas heard at the training session in May that Suat disappeared.

He decided to break the code of silence within the KEG. Authorities have an obligation to secrecy but can, despite it, speak to each other in the KEG.

Altuntas thought that his revelations served a greater interest. The story of Suat was brought up already before that, in a public meeting about honor violence at the Royal Theater on November 28, 2008. The entire way things happened strengthens Altuntas’ conviction that the Dutch authorities still underestimate how dangerous and devious honor violence can be. Despite all the media attention, courses and research. There is knowledge, but instinct in missing.

Altuntas could be called the Mister Honor Violence of the Hague. He comes from the Kurdish east of Turkey. In 2004 he organized a conference on honor violence. He was at the core of the KEG, from which he’s now been removed after an ultimatum by the police. Altunatas grew up in the Kurdish east of Turkey. He knows what honor violence is inside and out and wrote a book on the subject.

In the case-file about Suat, Altuntas’ warning and the role of the Youth Service are missing. First the school got involved. Suat was then, according to the case-file, 15. She had ‘constant physical complaints’. She told her social worker that her parents had married her off to a man of 24. When, the file doesn’t say. The husband paid a dowry and for a big wedding. She was too young for civil marriage, but not for a religious agreement.

The girl refused to have sex, at which the father ‘mediated’: some day yes, others not. After abuse she fled to her parents, who sent her back. The social workers warned the Sexual Abuse Advice and Reporting Center (AMK) and the police. The parents promised the HMK that their daughter could live by them again. But she remained by her husband and said in school that everything was going well. The AMK was supposed to speak with her after half a year, but the appointment was not kept. The police contacted Suat ‘after some time’. She wanted to go away from her ‘husband’.

The case-file stops here. “Describe the problem!” the students are told. The biggest problem seems to be Altuntas. The collective back was turned on him after he notified the paper. Besides Altuntas there’s another Mister Honor violence in the Hague, Willem Timmer, former head of the Multi-Ethnic Police (MEP). He now has a different position but still works in the same office as the MEP.

In a pilot project the MEP developed a method to recognize symptoms of honor violence. Timmer doesn’t recognize Suat’s case, he told Trouw, who did not reveal their source. Yet, after the meeting Altuntas immediately got a furious call from the police. A day later there were two more phone-calls from the MEP that threatened Altuntas with judicial steps and a fine. Much later Timmer will say that a collage listening in by chance had recognized Suat’s case and called Altuntas.

The GGD (public health service), co-organizers of the training meeting in May, also don’t know anything about this case-file and don’t want ‘any trouble’.

The real problem is naturally Suat. In November 2008, Altuntas got a visit from a member of the crisis intervention team of the Youth Service. Suat was in the shelter and wanted to go back to her parents.

But according to Altuntas, all warning signs were flashing. The parents and husband have lost face. Moreover, both family clans knew of it. If the latter was true, the clan leaders in the land of origin would decide if her blood should erase the shame.

Altuntas would have like to explain to the crisis team but got a mail that it was no longer necessary. The Youth Service had let the girl go, probably on advise of the police, who guide the Youth Service in such cases.

The Youth Service Department of Haaglanden/Zuid-Holland knows nothing. “We have ten thousand children and twelve hundred workers in twenty locations,” says a spokesperson. The Youth Service doesnt’ teach the workers about honor violence. The organization looks for expertise in their own network. “Don’t you need minimal knowledge to know when you should call on experts?” Youth Service: “we anticipate what’s necessary.” Though the Youth Service Haaglanden/Zuid-Holland, responsible for immigrant cities such as Rotterdam, the Hague and Gouda, doesn’t think it necessary to anticipate honor violence.

According to commissioner Lia Knoet, in charge of the MEP, publication could thwart a possible trial. The police worked according to their own protocols, she says, but can’t defend themselves due to secrecy obligations. Later the police adds something more.

According to this additional information, the MEP started a file in November 2008. Suat said that she feared for her life. She got shelter through the Youth Service. The parents told the police that they knew nothing of a marriage. The police spoke to Suat about lodging a complaint. There are indications that the family was looking for her hiding place. The MEP made a risk analysis.

In December they again spoke to the parents. Suat was also present then. She rejected any form of social help. The parents admitted now that she was married. They wanted to disband the marriage in the land of origin (which apparently was not possible in the Netherlands). the marriage, for that matter, was concluded in the land of origin and not in the Hague, as the file reports.

Saut would have a new friend. Father and daughter would go on a trip, the father showed the police the plane tickets, also the return tickets. There were agreements by phone that they’ll keep to, and after the New Year’s they’ll both come back.

The girl is ‘divorced’. A month later she’s doing well at school. And then in March, a damper was put on things. The father calls the police and says that the whole family, besides himself, remigrated. There has been no contact with Suat since.

In June she was 18, and the supervision order (OTS) was now meaningless. The question remains whether an OTS was possible earlier or not. When the social worker warned the police, Suat was 15, at least according to the case-file. Her birthday’s in June, so she ‘married’ in the second half of 2006 or the first half of 2007. The school and AMK knew of the ‘marriage’ quickly afterwards. The police too.

New information makes everything even more heart-rending. This case has probalby been going on for five years, and the girl was 13 when she ‘married’. This according to a source who wants to remain anonymous, who knew Suat, and knows of details. From the beginning the social workers and others at school discussed her case. They also enlisted other social authorities.

The file, the explanation by the police, and the information of the anonymous source who gave this information, seem difficult to put together. Altuntas is somber. Suat has either been murdered, or she now has a miserable life. Why did she go back to her land of origin, twice even? Altuntas: “The Dutch authorities didn’t give her any feeling of security. They had underestimated the danger and Suat felt it.”

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