The Syrian Civil War has become infamous for creating the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. Entire cities have been reduced to rubble, hundreds of thousands of have been lost, and millions are now displaced inside and outside the country. Nevertheless, there exist other conflict-related consequences that do not receive the same amount of public attention. One of these consequences is child marriage. Ever since the war’s onset, an increasing amount of young Syrian girls have been forced to give up their education, flee their country, and get married before turning eighteen [1][2]. These girls have not only been traumatized by war, but they also suffer continuously simply because of their gender.

Background

The Syrian conflict has produced nearly 2.7 million child refugees outside of Syria and affected 5.3 million children inside the country to date[1]. Countless families have had to flee their homeland, leave everything behind, and hope to find ways to survive in their new, harsh reality. Due to poverty and lack of job opportunities, many families see marrying their daughters as a way to lighten their financial burden. Indeed, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates child marriage rates to be four times higher among Syrian refugees today than among Syrians before the war[2].

Country-specific consequences

Jordan

Fleeing violent conflict, many Syrian families have ended up in refugee camps in neighboring countries. Jordan, which shares a border with southern Syria, is host to many of these camps. Data collected by the Jordanian court system estimates that the percentage of local child brides involved in Syrian marriages rose from 15 percent in 2014 to 36 percent this year [3]. Jordan’s judicial system had already issued new stipulations allowing girls the right to demand a marriage contract with conditions, including the right to complete their education and work, but this has not been enough to stop young girls from being married off.

Lebanon

Besides Jordan, many Syrian refugee girls have been displaced to Lebanon [4]. Over 500,000 displaced Syrian children are currently living in Lebanon, more than half of whom are not in school [5]. Moreover, some Syrian girls in Lebanon are actually choosing to marry early as a way out of unfavourable living conditions [2]. The problem in Lebanon is further worsened because there is no legal minimum age for marriage [4]. In Syria the legal age of marriage for girls is 17 and 18 for boys. However, religious leaders are often able to authorise exceptions, which means many girls younger than 17 are allowed to marry [6].

Turkey

Child marriage among Syrian refugee girls has also become increasingly common in Turkey.[7]  The conflict has helped boost the business of “matchmakers” who find child brides for men in return for a fee. Many of these marriages are actually polygamous marriages between Syrian girls and older Turkish men who already have a wife or wives.[8] To make matters worse, Turkey does not legally register marriages involving Syrians lacking passports, girls under the age of 16, or polygamous relationships. This means that most Syrian refugee women and girls lack legal protections. This puts these girls in an even more vulnerable position than they already are as refugees.

Schermata 2018-05-09 alle 16.07.17Kilis refugee camp for Syrian refugees in Turkey. By T.C. Başbakanlık Afet ve Acil Durum Yönetimi Başkanlığı, CC 3.0.

Over the past few years Syrian girls have become somewhat of a commodity, able to be traded in a market-style fashion. Many men are willing to pay Syrian families a generous amount in order to marry a daughter, as Syrian girls are perceived as being especially beautiful and obedient.[9] Many families end up giving in to such offers because of financial need. Receiving $2500 for one child bride is enough for a Syrian refugee family in Lebanon to pay their rent for a year while simultaneously having one less mouth to feed.

The impact on children

Many families fail to fully realize the consequences early marriage will have on their daughters in both the short- and long-term. It is difficult enough for these girls to have to leave their country, families, and education in favor of marriage, but the situation becomes more grim if the prospective spouse is violent or oppressive. [10] Child marriage exposes girls to a heightened risk of sexual and domestic violence, such as marital rape; health risks associated with violence and early childbirth; disrupted education; limited economic opportunities; and social isolation.[11]

Moreover, certain legal issues that come into play. For instance, if the mother is not legally registered in the country where she gives birth, which is usually the case among Syrian refugees, her children will also have no legal rights in that country and are thus vulnerable from the day they are born. What’s more, children whose births remain unregistered face the possible loss of their right to education, medical care and other basic services. Unable to get a Syrian passport or other official documents, and unable to legally return to the country of their parents, these children risk becoming stateless. [10]

What’s worse, if girls choose to divorce they face severe stigma from community members, greater risk of sexual exploitation, and sometimes even the refusal of local aid. [12] As a result, many become pressured into remarrying soon after. This leads to a vicious cycle of poverty, lack of education, and early marriage.

Drawings by young Syrian refugee girls in a community centre in southern Lebanon promote the prevention of child marriage. By DFID – UK Department for International Development, CC 2.0.  

Recommendations

There is no doubt that education is one of the strongest tools for empowerment. Education levels do not just affect one person but also the generations that follow. There is a need for a more holistic strategy to address the issue of child marriage, including economic, social, educational and familial-related solutions [2]. Research shows that girls with no education are three times as likely to marry before the age of 18 as those with secondary or higher education.[13] Therefore, programs must be developed which promote the involvement of girls in higher education.

Legal actions must also be taken to combat this problem. The legal marriage age must be raised to 18 in all countries where it is lower or where no legal age has been specified. International bodies must also remind states of their obligations to the human rights of female refugees with respect to work, including the obligation to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women in employment. [9] Barriers to employment for women must also be removed and initiatives teaching young girls valuable skills must be more widely implemented. [13]

Moreover, raising awareness among government officials and community leaders and members helps strengthen and better enforce existing initiatives around girls’ rights.[13] Finally, religious leaders and influential community figures must play a more active role in spreading awareness about the severe consequences child marriage can have on the lives of children.

Article written by Gabriela Bernal


References:

[1] UNICEF. (2018). February 2018 Syria situation report. Retrieved from  https://www.unicef.org/appeals/files/UNICEF_Syria_Crisis_Humanitarian_Situation_Report_February_2018.pdf

[2] Bartels SA, Michael S, Roupetz S, et al. Making sense of child, early and forced marriage among Syrian refugee girls: a mixed methods study in Lebanon. BMJ Global Health. 2018;3(1):e000509. doi:10.1136/bmjgh-2017-000509.

[3] Al Jazeera. (2018). Child marriage on the rise among Syrian refugee girls in Jordan. Retrieved from  https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/04/child-marriage-rise-syrian-refugee-girls-180418084029464.html

[4] Kanso, H. ‘I have nothing’ cries Syrian child bride as poverty drives more refugee girls to wed. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-lebanon-child-marriage-refugee/i-have-nothing-cries-syrian-child-bride-as-poverty-drives-more-refugee-girls-to-wed-idUSKCN1GR005

[5] Human Rights Watch. (2016). Lebanon: 250,000 Syrian Children Out of School. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/07/19/lebanon-250000-syrian-children-out-school

[6] Girls Not Brides. (2017). Child Marriage: Syrian Arab Republic. Retrieved from https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/child-marriage/syrian-arab-republic/

[7] Pelley, R., Quailey, S., Uppal, M., Yood, R. (2018). Gendered-Approach Inputs to UNHCR for the Global Compact on Refugees (2018): Lessons from Abuses faced by Syrian Female Refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. Leitner Center for International Law and Justice. Retrieved from http://www.unhcr.org/5a3bb9b77.pdf

[8] Nawa, F. (2016). Syrian influx in Turkey prompts upsurge in polygamy. PRI. Retrieved from https://www.pri.org/stories/2016-07-25/syrian-influx-turkey-prompts-upsurge-polygamy

[9] Moss, T. (2015). The rise of the Syrian child bride. UNICEF. Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org.au/blog/stories/october-2015/the-rise-of-the-syrian-child-bride

[10] Owens, J. (2018). For Syrian Refugees, Unlawful Marriages Lead to Statelessness in Lebanon. Voice of America. Retrieved from  https://learningenglish.voanews.com/a/lebanon-syrian-marriages/4305475.html

[11] Girls Not Brides. (2017). Child marriage and the Syrian conflict: 7 things you need to know. Retrieved from https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/child-marriage-and-the-syrian-conflict-7-things-you-need-to-know/

[12] Bradford, A. (2017). Syrian Refugee Fights Child Marriage and Abuse of Young Divorcees. NewsDeeply. Retrieved from https://www.newsdeeply.com/refugees/articles/2017/07/25/syrian-refugee-fights-child-marriage-and-abuse-of-young-divorcees-3

[13] International Center for Research on Women. (2013). Solutions to End Child Marriage. Retrieved from https://www.icrw.org/wp-co

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