Missing Students: The Stories of 3 Child Brides
Here are the stories of three young women who married as girls, told in their own words.
For Marwa, Marrying Young Was Normal and Promised a Fairytale
Marwa Al Edelbi was 12 when her family fled Homs in 2012 for Lebanon. What she remembers of Syria is friends, school and bombs.
“I remember the shelling while we were in class,” she recalled. “I remember that we couldn’t sleep at night because of the shelling.”
A year later, the sixth grader was married.
For Marwa, getting married at her age wasn’t something unusual—her eldest sister was married at 15. So when she was asked for her hand in marriage by her cousin, Marwa, then 13, was excited.
“My aunt came to our house and proposed—he was 23,” she said. “There wasn’t love or any feelings between us before (but) I was excited about becoming a bride … the white dress and the ring especially. Also, his family was in a better situation than ours. I thought I would move to my own place.”
“I thought I would move to a better life,” she added. “But that’s not what happened.”
In the intervening years, Marwa and her husband stayed in Burj Al Barajneh refugee camp, in southern Beirut, where her family landed when they arrived in Lebanon. The couple lived with her aunt’s other sons and their families—12 people in a two-bedroom apartment. Meanwhile, Marwa got pregnant seven months after she married. And again. And again. And again. After three consecutive years of pregnancy, Marwa, now 20, was due to have her second child with a C-section the day after this interview.
“I got pregnant because I wanted to, because I love kids,” she said. “Even so, the pregnancies have been difficult—I had some vitamin deficiencies and I would get dizzy sometimes. The labor of my first child was very difficult. … The doctors gave me drugs so my heart wouldn’t stop during labor. The second time was (less than a year) after that birth: The baby lost its life at seven months because the cord got twisted around its neck.”
The third time, her daughter died after one day, she says, because of medical negligence.
“Because I was admitted to the hospital through the U.N., they didn’t take care of me,” she said. “The baby died because she urgently needed to be put in an incubator but the hospital refused until we brought the money for it. It was too late.”
“I am very scared of giving birth tomorrow,” she added. “I did a coronavirus test today—it was negative. I am not afraid of labor, I am just worried about the child, I want my (child) to be born safely and in a good health. I just want that.”
“And I want to have a girl,” she added. “Girls are beautiful.”
Unlike many child brides, Marwa has a good marriage, she says. Even so, life continues to be difficult, especially because she has had trouble enrolling her 6-year old son in school: Public schools have not admitted him and private schools are too expensive. The family is struggling to survive financially.
“I am happy with my husband. He is a good man. I came to love him after we got married and I stayed in the marriage because of that,” she said. “Things became even better when he started working as a coppersmith. But he fell on glass and his hand got damaged. He can’t work well with (his hand) now. And he is unemployed now due to the economic situation in Lebanon.”
She says that she sometimes dreams about how things could have been, and how they could be if they could leave the camp, leave Lebanon, leave the past behind.
“I thought I would move to a better life. But that’s not what happened.”Marwa Al Edelbi
A Syrian refugee who married when she was only 13
“My previous life was better … I had less problems,” she said, referring to the time before she got married. “Now, we just want to leave, to go anywhere … but there is no way. …We don’t get any financial aid or assistance from the United Nations. … We told them that we want to leave Lebanon and resettle somewhere else but they say they cannot help us with that.”
“If we had stayed in Syria, I would have finished my education,” she added. “I didn’t know yet what I wanted to become, but I wanted to stay in school.”
Reem: In Iraq, a Young Bride Is Determined to Beat the Odds
At 16, Reem wanted to become an engineer in the oil industry. The Iraqi schoolgirl was on track to achieving her goal when her cousin asked for her hand in marriage. She was torn.
“I didn’t really want to get married and my family didn’t force me, so I initially said no,” she said. “But it’s the culture here, when your cousin asks you to marry, it’s embarrassing to say ‘no’ and after he asked me a few times, I said yes—with the condition that I would stay in school.”
After the wedding, though, her husband and his family forced her to drop out. When Islamic State militants invaded Anbar Governorate in 2014 and forced them to flee to a camp, she tried to restart her education. Her husband and his family—again—interfered. She withdrew from class.
Frustrated, she left her husband and returned to her parents’ home. However, the family didn’t have the money to fund her studies. Her father came up with a solution: He would trade his labor in exchange for a teacher to work with Reem to catch her up so she could take the national exam: If she passed, she could go to university. As a result, she studied at night, desperate to make up for lost time. But when the pandemic hit, her education was interrupted—again.
Eventually, she went to local aid workers and asked for help.
They introduced Reem to a distance-learning platform. It was difficult at first because she, like many Iraqi students, were new to online learning. She persevered and soon a small study group on WhatsApp she took part in grew to include more students.
Her teacher says she’s seen a significant change in Reem in just a few months.
“When she came in (to the center), she was very desperate, and very, very shy to speak, very afraid,” said Hanan, Reem’s teacher. “But now she’s so different, more courageous, she speaks up.”
Hanan was working as a social worker before the pandemic and says she’s seen many girls, girls with a similar story. She stays in touch with four in particular to offer her support as they try to leave their husbands and restart their lives.
“It’s always the same, the same men, the same story,” she said. “One married when she was 14, another when she was 12. Usually it’s the family who pushed the girls to get married because they had a poor income situation, to reduce the burden of responsibility of the family. And that’s why most of females of a certain age withdraw from school.”
She adds that all these marriages are illegal. In Iraq, the law stipulates that girls must reach 18 to marry even as the government tried—unsuccessfully for the moment—to lower the age to 9 in 2017. Regardless, the law can create issues for those girls who want a divorce.
“One married when she was 14, another when she was 12. Usually it’s the family who pushed the girls to get married because they had a poor income situation. … And that’s why most of females of a certain age withdraw from school.”Hanan
An Iraqi teacher
“When they want to get divorced, they first have to wait to (turn 18) and then get married officially and get the marriage certificate,” Hanan said. “Then they can go to court and get a divorce.”
These days, when her family can find the money, Reem’s hope is to get a divorce, in spite of how that might stigmatize her in the community. She also plans to take the high school exit exam, go to university and finish her degree, get a job and be independent. “If I don’t score high enough on the exam to go to university for oil engineering, I will take the exam again,” she said. “I won’t give up.”
And she says if her 13-year-old sister ever asks her for advice, she would tell her: “If you have a plan for your future, if you want to finish your studies, you should not get married. Even if the family promises they will support you in this, you should not do it. And if our culture leads to pressure on you and your family to get married, don’t do it. You should work to make your dreams come true first.”
Nouzha: ‘I Will Never Let My Daughters Be Like Me’
Nouzha Al-Hussein was a 16-year-old student in Homs dreaming of becoming a doctor when her father forced her to marry.
Less than four years later, she found herself a mother of three children, a war widow, and yet another Syrian refugee fleeing to Lebanon.
Landing in a camp for widows and children in the Bekaa Valley, in eastern Lebanon, she eventually met a younger man and married again, having two more children.
These days, she says, life is one continuous battle. Her new husband is ill and can’t work—he needs surgery which they can’t afford. Nouzha, meanwhile, cleans houses and earns less than $10 a day. She and her family do not receive monthly aid from UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, even though they are registered with the agency and entitled to, she says, because of aid cutbacks in recent years.
Her oldest child is 12 and her youngest is almost 3. Her children are not able to go to school.
“My kids were not accepted in schools, there was no place for them,” she said. “I have been told to check with the Norwegian Refugee Council as it might help us but suddenly, we had the coronavirus and everything shut down.”
These days, Nouzha just thinks about being relocated to Canada by UNHCR, where she dreams of a better life for her children. She says she deeply regrets that she lost out on her opportunity to get an education. She is sure she would have had a better life if she had finished school.
“My old schoolmates became doctors and teachers,” she said. “I have no contact with them now but I am sure they are living better than me just because they completed their education.”
“My father beat me badly to leave my school and get married: I had to accept it,” she added. “But if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t ever accept it even if he killed me.”
As a result, Nouzha is adamant that her two daughters don’t marry before graduating from university. She won’t allow it.
“Even if there is a rich groom,” she said, “I will never let them get married early.”
“I want them to avoid the miserable life I have. I want them to have a better life … to grow up and enjoy life, to study and work, and earn good money,” she added. “Education is the only way to achieve this. There is no future without it.”