Damascus – The rising numbers of child marriage among most vulnerable Syrian refugees over the past 7 years has sent alarm bells amongst humanitarian and civil rights organisations worldwide. Refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have been fertile grounds for thousands of child marriages with catastrophic social and psychological consequences. Whilst the reasons behind this alarming phenomenon vary, the dilemma has been further exasperated by the growing numbers of divorce amongst child brides, and the emergence of child trafficking gangs operating within and outside of those refugee camps.
Although child marriage existed before the war in Syria broke out 8 years ago, particularly in remote rural areas and certain conservatively religious communities, the numbers rocketed since the war broke out, particularly amongst hardest-stricken families displaced from their native homeland by
the conflict, as well as in areas controlled by Islamic fanatic groups whose members and leaders bragged about marrying girls as young as 11 and even younger, as documented in parts of Iraq and Syria controlled by ISIS or Al Nusra terrorists or similar hardline Islamic groups.
A survey conducted by UNFPA, the American University of Beirut and Sawa for Development and Aid targeting the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon revealed some alarming figures of child marriages. The survey which was conducted in 2016 covered some 2,400 refugee women and girls living in Western Bekaa, and found that more than a third of those surveyed between the ages of 20 and 24 had been married before reaching age 18.
Among refugee girls currently between ages 15 and 17, some 24 per cent are married. Although estimates vary, some show child marriage rates to be four times higher among Syrian refugees today than among Syrians before the crisis. This indicates that displacement, instability and poverty are driving the underage marriages.
“I am convinced that no girl should get married before the age of 18. But when it comes to reality, it is different,” said Iman, a Syrian refugee who was one of the data collectors for the survey. She explained that, as a widow and the sole breadwinner for her family, she has trouble supporting her three children and ageing father. “For this, reason my cousin, out of his good heart, wanted to help out by getting engaged to my daughter and supporting us financially,” she said. Her daughter was 15.
Similar to rampant child labour and growing prostitution following years of war and displacement, Syrian refugees are marrying for Survival, sometimes against their will. Many parents would rather their daughter be married when up to 70% of Syrian refugee children are working.
Sandy Zakhem is the project manager of Tassmim wa Irada ( Will and Determination), a group of local lawyers who provide legal assistance to child brides, stateless children, and child abuse survivors, maintains that refugee families sometimes marry off their daughters when they are as young as 12 in order to get money for things like rent, food, and a job for the father. The Syrian conflict that erupted in 2011 has generated 5.6 million refugees in the Middle East, with Lebanon hosting more than 950,000 registered refugees, according to UNHCR.
Twenty-nine percent of Syrian girls aged between 15 and 19 are married in Lebanon, a number that has been growing, according to the report. “These findings are a reminder to all of us that the situation for children is becoming more delicate,” said Tanya Chapuisat, UNICEF Representative. “We are seeing refugee families resorting to behaviours that put their children at increasing harmful risks,” she stated in the report.
The tragic situation in Turkish and Jordanian refugee camps are not any different. A small shop in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan displays child-sized wedding dresses. In the camp, Syrian refugee girls down to 13 years of age are married off by their parents. Child marriage there has also been rising at an alarming rate in Syrian refugee communities. The parents want the best for their daughters, but the result is often the opposite.
Several reports have been published over the past few years documenting or even filming girls as young as 13 or even younger being “sold” in slave-like marriages at Syrian refugee camps to men in their 60s or even 70s, particularly Arabs from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, where wedding an underaged girl is a common perversion.
Although child marriage is a global phenomenon, particularly in third world nations and poor uneducated communities, the scaring surge in numbers of underaged girls forced to marry in refugee camps, for reasons beyond their will and control, remains a tragic phenomenon of colossal human dimensions.
Without urgent and serious campaigns to raise awareness among target communities, and change the conditions that lead to this grave human disgraceful reality, the situation is bound to get much worse for thousands of Syrian and other would-be child brides forced into a marriage that could easily destroy their life once and for all.