The Protector of Citizens, Zoran Pašalić, was a guest in the morning program of Television Kurir.

Further on, we will talk about another topic, which we announced at the very beginning of the show, and it concerns child marriages. As a society, are we aware of the harmfulness of underage marriages and are many children's rights, above all, the right to a carefree childhood and health, revoked by this act? Such marriages frequently pose a danger that children will become victims of human trafficking, and sometimes even have a tragic outcome. The Protector of Citizens, Zoran Pašalić, will tell us how dangerous underage marriages are. Good afternoon... I would like to talk about the recent case, which you warned about, of a girl from Belgrade who died as a result of months of severe physical violence that she suffered from her husband's family upon arriving at the house.

- First, let us determine some things. When we talk about underage marriages, we mean the institution of marriage, which is official. Here we have an extramarital union. Although the law equates marriage and extramarital unions, I make a distinction because these are mostly cases of extramarital unions that are entered into by minors and which can represent, regardless of whether one person is a minor and the other an adult, a very, very high risk of human trafficking. In this specific case, unfortunately, the girl passed away, the 16-year-old girl, who lived in an extramarital union with her unmarried husband, also 16 years old. She suffered abuse for months and eventually passed away, unfortunately.

Did you know about this case? What exactly did you do?

- We learned about that case from the media. In my opinion, the most significant thing is that the situation in that extramarital union should have been monitored by the centre for social work, as well as the police.

How much should we as a society be concerned by that information and the fact that in this specific case the parents did not object to the marriage and how much does it say about the state of mind of people who are supposed to be mature and should not approve of something like this?

- Please, let's make that distinction, it is not marriage, but an extramarital union. A marriage between minors is one thing, and an extramarital union another. It is also regulated by law. We are part of the National Coalition to End Child Marriage and we work very closely most often with those in whose communities such extramarital unions are most often formed. We are also members of the Working Group for amending the Family Law, which would absolutely regulate this issue. Marriage can be concluded by two persons who have reached the age of 18. If a person is under 18 years of age, then the permission of the court is required. But this is when we are talking about marriage. When it comes to extramarital unions, what we are asking is for the Article 23 of the Family Law to be amended and extramarital union introduced. Where is human trafficking hiding? Let me explain that first. You have the criminal act Article 190, which says that the person who enters into marriage, meaning an adult person with a minor, shall be punished with imprisonment for up to three years, and the one who enables it, a guardian, a parent, also with the same punishment. The third paragraph says that if it is done out of self-interest, meaning that there is some benefit from it, then the punishment is much more severe, six months to five years in prison. This is practically where the cause is, the possibility of human trafficking.

How important is it to work on education, even for us adults? There are also those categories of the population and those people who do not see the difference, as you actually underlined just now, between extramarital unions and child marriages, they see nothing wrong with it. It is certainly a criminal act. How and in what way can we raise awareness and highlight that distinction, so that things like this don't happen again?

- Thank you so much for this question. There is an established opinion that such minor extramarital unions are practically only formed in certain social ethnic groups and that this is a matter of their tradition, but this phenomenon absolutely cannot be viewed in that way, because if we look at it as a tradition, then we nullify what is most important – to look at it through the laws, laws that must be changed, that must regulate this issue in more detail and should be more drastic in terms of punishment. There are very few cases where we have punishments imposed for such types of criminal acts.

The consequences of children's extramarital unions, here, we have separated extramarital unions and marriages, are multi-layered and negative on several levels. And the wider population should also be educated on this. First of all, the child takes on the role of a spouse, for which he/she is certainly not ready either mentally or physically, and after that, the child often stops going to school, is discriminated against by his/her peers... I have listed only some of them, but what are all the other negative sides and consequences of such behavior?

- The Institution of the Protector of Citizens, myself, and my colleagues, visited countless such communities in the neighborhoods where the people who most often enter such minor extramarital unions live. What was most noticeable to us was that their childhood is being interrupted there, their right to childhood and, most importantly, the right to education. We came across exceptionally gifted children, female children in particular, who were prevented from attending further education and schooling because of the extramarital union, regardless of the level they reached. I am having a conversation about that with prof. Acković today, who is a member of parliament and president of the Committee for Roma Affairs, because it is one of the most important issues. There are extremely talented children who are prevented by such communities from going further through life in terms of education and personal affirmation.

I think we have sent a clear message, and it concerns this topic and the separation of marriage and extramarital union, especially when minors are involved. But since you are already here with us, let me use the opportunity to ask you about the rights of the elderly. We recently read and our media company wrote about the not so good situation of the elderly in a home in Belgrade. What can you say about the rights of the elderly in our country, how well are they respected and are the institutions that are supposed to take care of the elderly adequate enough to carry out such a function?

- The value of a state is measured by its care for the most sensitive groups, namely children and, in this case, the elderly. Older people, accommodated in inadequate conditions, really go through very, to say the least, unpleasant experiences and live very difficult, to put it simply, in such homes and outside of homes, but the homes are our topic now. The most important thing is that they must be under constant control, but the system is set up so that those persons or people who keep private homes, in full compliance with the regulations, go through controls more often, a much greater number of controls than those who keep illegal homes. A few months ago, I had a meeting, a very large meeting, with those who keep legal homes, and there I received a lot of information concerning this very topic... We have this situation, which is completely illogical, where the social inspection cannot enter a home for which there are complaints regarding the behaviour of persons towards the beneficiaries, the staff, the inadequate conditions. And now what? We are waiting for a decision, which is necessary, and the essence of any control is that you come unannounced and find the situation as it is, which is realistic, and for which you have enough space.

You announce every time...

- Yes. And then with the possibility of certain corrections, all meaning is lost. What we constantly insist on in the regulations and which we will even use, as I announced to the owners of those legal homes, is that, within the framework of our activities, we will go and visit homes that we think should be visited first and carry out inspections. We have the right to that. We have the right to enter without notice and no one can stop us because it is stipulated by the Law on the Protector of Citizens.

We hope that exactly those activities of yours will bring good results and that we will then prevent such occurrences, such illegal homes, which do not even have a license to operate, and fix the even worse conditions for all beneficiaries of those homes. Thank you.