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Pandemic Will Force Thousands of Refugee Girls to Become Brides Instead of Students

Editor’s note: The Covid-19 pandemic has shut down many girls’ already limited access to education, especially if they are internally displaced or refugees. In a new “Girls at Risk” series, Al-Fanar Media is focusing on factors that keep girls out of school. Typically, Al-Fanar Media focuses on Arab higher education, but we believe it is also important sometimes to turn our attention to the barriers that prevent the disadvantaged from ever reaching universities. All of the articles in the Girls at Risk series can be found here.

Millions of young female refugees have been forced to leave school in Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere in the region due to coronavirus closures.

Now, many aid officials, researchers and advocates worry that when schools reopen for in-person instruction, many of these girls will not return. The pandemic is making the poor poorer, which in turn is creating a spike in child marriages, as families marry off their daughters to get a bride payment and rid themselves of a mouth to feed. 

Once girls marry and leave school, they rarely come back.

“I don’t know that I’ve met any Syrian refugee girls who have married and managed to continue their education,” said Bill Van Esveld, associate director of the children’s rights division of Human Rights Watch, who oversaw the recent report “I Want to Continue to Study: Barriers to Secondary Education for Syrian Refugee Children in Jordan.” 

“There’s probably a few out there but it seems rare,” Van Esveld said. “Once you marry, you are generally out of school.” 

A Floor Collapsing 

Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey together host almost eight million refugees, the majority from Syria but also Iraqis, Palestinians, Yemenis, Somalis and Sudanese. Since the coronavirus pandemic hit this spring, these countries—which are among the world’s top 10 refugee-hosting nations—have seen severe economic contractions, including spiraling inflation and unemployment. Lebanon is on the verge of economic collapse. 

As a result, these countries’ refugee populations—already excluded from the formal labor market in Jordan and Lebanon—have become especially vulnerable to the pandemic’s shocks, seeing their incomes drop or disappear. International aid has steadily declined, as donor fatigue has set in and new crises elsewhere have drawn aid to places such as Bangladesh. Most refugees in the Levant are excluded from any social safety nets that exist. (See a related article, “As Refugees’ Plight Worsens, School Becomes a Luxury.”)

Even before the pandemic hit earlier this year, 80 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan were living in poverty, Human Rights Watch wrote. A Rapid Needs Assessment of “vulnerable populations,” including refugee camps, in Jordan in March by the charity CARE found that 90 percent reported they could not pay for their basic needs. (See a related article, “Jordan’s Tight Covid-19 Lockdown Also Squeezes Vulnerable Populations.”)

Another survey, done by the International Labour Organization earlier this year, found that in Lebanon, 91 percent of the Syrian refugees were permanently or temporarily laid off from work. In Jordan, 95 percent reported a decline in household income. 

As refugees’ financial situations deteriorate, researchers say this is usually accompanied by a corresponding increase in child labor, early marriage, and dropping out of school, regardless of the laws of the host country.

“The tragic irony is that many families still think that they will actually be making their daughter safer and providing her with a sort of support system by marrying her off.”

Bill Van Esveld  
Associate director of the children’s rights division of Human Rights Watch

“The tragic irony is that many families still think that they will actually be making their daughter safer and providing her with a sort of support system by marrying her off,” said Van Esveld. “But it can be very dangerous for girls in multiple ways: Physically, mentally … and it also basically means that they’re not going to have a chance to go to school.” (See a related article, “Why Families Choose Marriage Over School for Their Daughters.”)

An Early Upward Trend

Refugee and displaced populations have already seen an upward trend in child marriage. For example, before the Syrian war started in 2011, the marriage rate for Syrian girls under 18 was officially 13 percent, according to Unicef. Today, almost a decade later, UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, estimates that rate to be four times higher among Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. (See a related article, “Where Syrian Girls are Marrying Early.”) 

There isn’t much quantitative data yet for upward trends in child marriage among refugees or non-refugees, as the pandemic has cut off access for aid organizations and researchers. Even so, most say grimly they are sure the uptick will come.

“We are seeing the early warning signs,” said Rachel Yates, director for learning and regional implementation at Girls Not Brides, which has 1,400 member organizations around the world.

 She is referring to an increase in economic hardship and a lack of access to schools. “The feedback we are hearing from our member organizations has shown us that both have massively increased,” Yates explained. “And the girls themselves have been telling us that this (child marriage) is a real concern because the longer they’re out of school, the less chance their parents will send them back.”

Child marriage rates are usually calculated retroactively by surveying women ages 20 to 24 to figure out when they married, she noted, adding, “We can’t wait to have the data—by the time we find out, it will be too late.” 

Part of the certainty is fueled by what happened during the Ebola pandemic in Sierra Leone about five years ago, a cautionary lesson for the current situation: There, child marriage and pregnancy spiked due to school closings. Most of the girls who married or became mothers did not return to school. “The Ebola crisis gave us the missing link,” said Anna Cristina D’Addio, a senior policy analyst for Unesco’s Global Education Monitoring report.

A Struggle Even Before the Pandemic 

Education was already out of reach for many female refugees worldwide before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Girls Not Brides reports that adolescent girls in “humanitarian contexts” are 90 percent more likely to be out of school than their counterparts in stable situations.

Regionally, enrollment for female Syrian refugees—who number more than two million—at the primary school level in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan ranged from 70 percent to 95 percent, but fell drastically at the secondary level to under 30 percent overall, and 15 percent in Jordan. (SEE GRAPHIC/BOX)

Some of this can be attributed to cultural gender norms that emphasize school for boys over girls, say aid officials and researchers, at least among the rural poor. The pandemic and the resulting school closures promise to put education even further out of reach for girls.

Nawal Mdallaly, founder of the Sawa Association for Development, a n education and development nongovernmental organization that works with women and children, including refugees, in the Bekaa region of Lebanon, illustrates how that plays out in the refugee camps. 

“First, not all the parents have access to a cellphone,” she said. “Second, there is no money to charge the cellphone and for wifi. For the girls it’s not a priority. … Always (among) the Syrian families in the camps, the girl is not a priority.” 

Exclusion, and Despair

Meanwhile, employment opportunities are decreasing everywhere due to the pandemic. The situation is worse for women and their employment outlook may play into families’ decisions about their daughters. Women’s labor force participation rates in the Middle East were already the lowest in the world before the pandemic at 24.6 percent—half of the global average, according to a 2020 report by McKinsey

Now, the pandemic is making that situation worse. (SEE GRAPH) “Women’s jobs, businesses and incomes are likely to be more exposed than men’s to the economic fallout from the crisis,” the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said in a June report. 

“The girls themselves have been telling us that this (child marriage) is a real concern because the longer they’re out of school, the less chance their parents will send them back.”

Rachel Yates
 Director for learning and regional implementation at Girls Not Brides

“These risks are particularly acute for certain categories of informal workers who lack job, income and social security, including domestic workers, agricultural workers and small traders, among whom women are over-represented, as well as refugees,” the report says.

Researchers say the employment outlook will play into parents’ thinking about the possible benefits of educating their daughters. Even before the pandemic, young girls recognized the lack of opportunities for higher education and employment and  were willing to get married at an early age to reduce the poverty faced by their family, says Save the Children’s report, “Too Young To Wed.” 

Even so, for those girls who, willingly or unwillingly, marry at an early age, the act can have the consequence later of an awkward divorce. One activist, herself once a child bride, detailed the story of a girl married at age 9 who was now trying to get divorced—at age 13. Girls married in unregistered marriages have to wait to turn 18, then get married in a civil ceremony and register their marriage before they can file for divorce, as one young bride detailed in an interview. 

Researchers and aid officials say more focus needs to be put on preventing girls from disappearing from schools and marrying in the first place—before the data show it has become an issue. 

“One of the things that we know is that refugee girls are already one of the most vulnerable groups in the non-pandemic setting,” said Shelby Carvalho, a fellow at Harvard University who specializes in education and girls in conflict settings. “They’re more vulnerable to early marriage, to early pregnancy, to risky forms of employment, including sex work, just because that’s kind of the options that they have.” 

“Combining refugee status with these additional risk factors that come with prolonged periods of schools being closed and additional household economic shocks—all this means we know we’ve got a kind of a tough road ahead,” she said.

Nouzha Al-Hussein knows about this all too well. A child bride herself in Syria—her father forced her to marry at 16—she fled for Lebanon after her husband was killed, where she now struggles to make ends meet. The UNHCR aid payments have stopped due to cutbacks, her cleaning jobs bring in only $10 a day when she can work, and her five children are out of school. 

Still, she’s determined to keep her family together and help her daughters—the oldest is 12—avoid the same fate. 

“Even if there is a rich groom, I will never let them get married early,” she said, adding that they must go to university. “I want them to avoid the miserable life I have. … Education is the only way to achieve this. I want them to be better than me.”

Rasha Faek contributed to this article from Cairo.


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