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.
Thousands of Syrian refugee child brides across Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and elsewhere are finding that their family’s impoverishment is leading to weddings instead of graduations.
And while there are a handful of reasons for early nuptials, one key driver for refugees is economic hardship.
“I thought I would move to a better life … but that was not what happened,” says Marwa Al Adelbi from her home in the Burj Barajneh refugee camp in Lebanon, referring to her marriage at age 13. “My previous life was better.” (See a related article, “Missing Students: The Stories of 3 Child Brides.)
Researchers and case workers say that some parents will marry off their girls to ensure they are taken care of—or even provide economic advancement—because the families are unable to provide. Many parents don’t want to, recognizing that marrying too early can cut short education and have other adverse effects. Even Syrian boys and girls as young as 12 realize that, according to a report released this year by World Vision. The report interviewed 600 Syrians, including children, and is called “Stolen Future: War and Child Marriage in Northwest Syria.”
Devon Cone, senior advocate for women and girls at Refugees International, recalls a specific case during a resettlement interview in Lebanon a few years ago. The interview involved a family who ran out of money and married off their daughter at 15. The father “told me that he didn’t want to do it,” she said. “He cried explaining it to me.”
Some families see girls as a burden, since they will eventually leave the household and devote their attention to their husband’s family.
“For the Syrian families in the (refugee) camps, girls are not a priority,” said Nawal Mdallaly, founder of Sawa Association for Development, an education and development nongovernmental organization that works with women and children, including refugees, in the Bekaa region of Lebanon. “For example, families prefer that boys continue their (remote) studies on a cell phone—not the girls … if they want to buy something (for the children), they buy first for the boys and then for the girls. And so, it’s not a problem if the girls get married at 12 because this will help the family: They eliminate a member of the family—they don’t have to pay for her anymore. They think, ‘Let her be married so the husband can pay for her.’”
A Way to Avoid Harassment
In conflict zones such as Syria and Iraq, as well as refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey and elsewhere, harassment and violence against girls can be common. So some families see marriage as a way to protect their daughters from rape or even forced marriage to a member of an armed group, as well as a way to protect the family’s “honor,” according to Cone’s August report for Refugees International. (The report is titled “Exacerbating the Other Epidemic: How Covid-19 Is Increasing Violence Against Displaced Women and Girls.”)
“For the Syrian families in the (refugee) camps, girls are not a priority.”Nawal Mdallaly
Founder of Sawa Association for Development
Sometimes marrying off girls early is just part of the culture, especially in rural areas, researchers and aid workers say. Parents can feel community pressure to marry off girls, especially those who have been raped. Families sometimes force rape victims to marry their abusers to protect the family’s honor and reputation.
Meanwhile, marriage also can make getting residency in the host country easier, according to a study by Unicef on early marriage in Jordan. Some girls marry to get Syrian men into Jordan—it’s easier to get residency as a married couple and then sponsor the rest of the family.
At the same time, parents—and sometimes the girls themselves—believe that there is no point in staying in school. The opportunity costs seem too high, especially when higher education is seen as a remote possibility, given the costs. This is especially true for girls who are poor students, say researchers. The pandemic-related school closures have only made the situation worse, with many parents and the girls themselves believing they have lost too much time. And some girls, bored at home, want a way out of their household, especially if it is abusive, researchers say.
Another Form of Prostitution
Above all, economic desperation—or greed—sometimes drives families to sell their daughters, and not just for a bride price. That is what a July 2020 report on the exploitation of children in Turkey by ECPAT International, a global network of civil-society organizations working to combat the sexual exploitation of children, found. The report cites interviews with Syrian women working in the Turkish sex industry: One told interviewers she was sold at 16 for “a few thousand liras” (a few hundred dollars) to an abusive man four decades her senior and was shared with his male relatives.
Sometimes the pimp is a husband, according to the interviews in the ECPAT report; other times, it’s a brother. Often, after the girls are married and soon divorced, they are sold again to other families. “They marry you off when you are a baby,” the Syrian woman told interviewers. “They’re basically selling us.”
In refugee camps such as Zaatari in Jordan, there is an organized trade in young brides, often serving clients from the Gulf, according to a BBC investigation, which researchers and aid officials also note. Some of these involve temporary marriages or the so-called “summer marriages,” essentially prostitution, that also occur in non-refugee female populations in the region—in Egypt and Yemen, for example. And some of these girls are married multiple times for brief periods for money.
“The main and important factor that helps fight against child marriage is education—for girls that go to school, the risk of being married early is lower because they are in a safe place.”Anna Cristina D’Addio
A senior policy analyst for Unesco’s Global Education Monitoring report
Mdallaly detailed the case of one young teenager, under 16 years old, who was married off by her brother to a 45-year-old Lebanese man for two months. After he divorced her and she returned to the camp, her brother tried to marry her off again. “She was a baby,” Mdallaly said.
The irony, say aid officials and researchers, is that the safest harbor for girls and young women to stave off domestic violence, sexual assault, sexual exploitation and child marriage, has been closed off to them—the schools themselves.
It’s a “chicken and egg” situation, they say.
“The main and important factor that helps fight against child marriage is education—for girls that go to school, the risk of being married early is lower because they are in a safe place,” said Anna Cristina D’Addio, a senior policy analyst for Unesco’s Global Education Monitoring report. “And when they are kept out of school, not only is there the risk of marrying early but the risk of early marriage goes hand in hand with the risk of early pregnancy.”
Al Edelb, the girl in in Burj Barajneh camp in Lebanon, knows that firsthand. She says she wishes things had been different, that she had had a chance.
“If we had stayed in Syria, I would have finished my education,” she said. “I didn’t know yet what I wanted to become, but I wanted to stay in school.”
Riham Alkousaa contributed to this article.