At twelve years old, Amira was asked for her hand in marriage. Her life had been normal up until the Syrian conflict, spending her childhood going to school and playing with her friends. This all changed at the age of nine with the outbreak of the civil war which led to her family seeking refuge in Lebanon. Three years later, a man sought her hand in marriage.

I wish this was a story, but this is the account of one girl’s life. A life that was normal up until the Syrian conflict and the displacement accompanying it. A life that is sadly not unique to Amira but one that is lived by many girls fleeing the war in Syria.

This conflict has caused one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history with over 5.6 million people fleeing the country and 6.2 million being internally displaced. Most refugees have fled to neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Despite their hospitality, the unstable economic conditions of these countries means that the market has struggled to absorb the influx of people coming from Syria. This has left Syrian refugees living in poverty without access to basic rights, leading people to resort to negative coping mechanisms. One of them is child marriage.

Lebanon, a country where 1 in 4 persons is a Syrian refugee, has witnessed an exponential rise in child marriage. Child marriage was not an unknown phenomenon prior to the outbreak of the conflict: in 2006, 13% of girls married under the age of 18. However; forced displacement has led to a significant increase in this practice. Today, over 40% of Syrian girls living in Lebanon under the age of eighteen are married.

Today, over 40% of Syrian girls living in Lebanon under the age of eighteen are married.

Poverty, lack of education and instability have all played their role in increasing this practice.

Poverty

With over 70% of Syrian refugees living below the poverty line in Lebanon, many parents have resorted to subjecting their children to negative coping mechanisms in order to survive. For both sons and daughters, this means an end to education. However the future for each differs. Boys are often brought into the labour market, either selling tissues on the street or working on construction sites. Girls are forced into marriage. Marriage is seen as a way of easing the financial burden placed on their family: it means ‘one less mouth to feed’ as well as receiving a dowry. The struggling economy, lack of employment prospects and an increasing shortage of aid have left many families desperate and reaching for options previously unthought-of.

Education

Barriers to education has caused instability in the lives of the young and a loss of hope for a better future. Education is viewed positively among many Syrians, but remains difficult to access. These barriers to accessing education means that many school-aged youth drop out with females disproportionately affected. According to the UNHCR, 44% of Syrian refugee youth remain out of school and this number increases exponentially as the youth get older. Barriers to education do not only extend to capacity issues, but also to difficulties with the curriculum given that it is taught through French and English, unlike Arabic in Syria. Other barriers include the associated costs as well as the concerns of safety in going to school.

New living environments and security concerns

Living in an unfamiliar environment brings a heightened sense of insecurity. In these situations, parents choose marriage as a way of protecting their daughters from rape and sexual harassment.There have been reports of landlords taking advantage of Syrian refugees by asking for sex in exchange for rent. Changing household dynamics due to the conflict mean that women are now taking the unfamiliar role of head of household. In Lebanon, current statistics estimate 1 in every 5 Syrian refugee households are led by a woman. In these circumstances, marriage is also seen as a way to keep young girls safe by providing them with the protection of a man. However, most of these marriages contain acts of violence both sexual and physical. As the journalist Lisa Khoury put it, it is a choice between rape and rape.

Another driving factor is the concept of “Al Sutra,” which translates to protecting a women’s honour. Many women, especially from rural areas, share the view that honour defines their future and view marriage as a mechanism for its protection. New living environments, coupled with concerns over the influence of the more liberal Lebanese culture and the fear of unfavourable gossip from unfamiliar neighbours, lead many families to chose marriage as a protection for their daughter.

The legal situation

Lebanon has committed to eliminate child marriage by 2030 in line with the Sustainable Development Goals and has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991, which sets a minimum age of marriage of 18. Despite this, Lebanon has no minimum age for marriage, leaving it to the jurisdiction of the religious courts allowing girls as young as nine to be married. Attempts to bring in a law setting the minimum age for marriage at eighteen faced political opposition in 2017.

Furthermore, it is important to note that Lebanon is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. This convention states the rights of displaced people and the obligation to ensure their basic rights. These basic rights include access to education and employment opportunities. The implications for this has knock on effects, including the rise in child marriage.

Many steps to ending child marriage: changing laws and mentalities

There are many steps to be taken to rectify this situation. Firstly, implementing legislation bringing the age of child marriage to eighteen is crucial. However, it is important to ensure that this law does not drive victims of child marriage underground as has been reported in Turkey. This further isolates them and prevents them from seeking out healthcare or assistance in cases of domestic violence.

In addition, there is a need for increased aid and commitment to pledges in order to assist the Syrian refugee population. I recently attended the Brussels III Conference on ‘Supporting the future of Syria and the region’, and, whilst the generosity of pledges is worthy of applause, the actual challenge remains coming through on these promises.

Through providing this aid, we can ensure some of the root causes such as poverty and lack of is tackled as well as having the funding to bolster efforts at raising awareness of the effects of child marriage.

Read more about this complex phenomenon:

Drawing by young Syrian girl in a Lebanese refugee camp | Photo courtesy of SB Overseas
  • mm

    Jade Tenwick is an Irish-South African living in Brussels. She has lived in a number of EU countries and is currently working in politics. Passionate about human rights, feminism and coffee.

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