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4th Dec 2022

Religion helps bring Roma child brides back to school

  • Roma children at school (Photo: Amnesty International)

Almost half of the 4,460 inhabitants of the south-eastern Romanian town of Ramnicelu are of Romanian origin. Until recently, the town's Roma were keen to marry children at a very young age.

The most extreme known wedding happened two years ago, when a five year-old girl was married to a boy of 16. The case provoked the indignation of child protection associations all over Europe, and the intervention of members of the European Parliament.

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"We ourselves were shocked when we realised this had gone too far, and we decided to turn ourselves to God," says Stefan Vasile, a local citizen whose teenage son had married an eight-year-old girl 11 years ago. The bride had gone to school for just two weeks before the wedding.

"Yes, I married my wife when she had just started the first year of primary school," explained Ionel, Mr Vasile's son. "Then, after we discovered the word of God, we realised we had been wrong. We are repentant today. I assure you my daughter will get married when she's 18, not when she's eight," Ionel Vasile said.

His family belongs to the Pentecostal church, a church that is gaining popularity in the region. Last month, 150 local Roma were baptised, among them the whole Vasile family.

Since 2008, more than 80 percent of the Ramnicelu Roma community have converted to Pentecostalism and abandoned the custom of early marriages. Local girls are now encouraged to go to school, where absenteeism has dropped drastically.

The change is largely attributed to Grigore Vasile, a 38-year-old local pastor and father of seven. "We want to end this practice," Mr Vasile said of child marriages. "I can give the example of my own daughter, who is studying in the best college of Ramnicu Sarat [a nearby town] and wants to go to university."

"Until recently, nobody could stop our bad practices," admitted Vasile Dumitrache, a Pentecostal parishioner, "neither the police, nor the school, or any other authority. Only God stopped it, because we had been doing something evil."

Marian Dumitrache, a school mediator, agrees that child marriages were the main reason for school failure. "When little girls got married, they usually stopped coming to school, because their underage husbands were jealous. The mass conversion to the Pentecostal cult changed that."

In "School No. 2" in Ramnicelu, 98 percent of the children are Roma. Pupil Mariana V. is only 10, but has already been married. "My parents arranged everything with his parents," she explained. "I lived with my husband a little more than one month." Mariana had dropped out from school, but when her parents converted to Pentecostalism, they annulled her marriage and sent her back to the classroom. Now she likes mathematics and says she will not marry again until she's 18.

"In 2007 a Ramnicelu girl aged 11 years and 8 months gave birth here," said Lucretia Dediulescu, manager of the Ramnicu Sarat hospital. "We have had many cases of young mothers, but that was the youngest. Because her pelvis bones were not yet fully developed, doctors had to perform a caesarean section. The children are healthy and were released without complications," Ms Dediulescu says of both the young mother and her offspring. The hospital has seen no such cases in the last two years, Ms Dediulescu said.

Pentacostalism is gaining in popularity all over Romania, to the dismay of the mainstream Orthodox church. The Orthodox Archbishopric of Buzau, the administrative centre that covers Ramnicelu, declined to comment on the problem with underage brides. Instead, they ventured criticism of the proselytism practiced by Pentecostals.

Ramnicelu's Orthodox priest had been accused of sanctifying child marriages - an allegation that was rebuffed by Adrian Ionescu, spokesman of the Archbishopric. "I cannot believe this has happened," Mr Ionescu said. "A priest cannot officiate in a marriage without a proper certificate from the registrar," he added.

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