by Yasser Baroudy, Vision Hope Consultant in Syria
Edited by Keri Ladner
Part 1: Causes of Child Marriage
Imagine living in such extreme destitution that the only way you can provide for your teenage daughter is to marry her off to someone twice her age. This state of absolute poverty is a reality for an increasing number of Syrian families.
The conflict in Syria has led to the fracturing of a once-thriving society and the development of severe social problems that have far-reaching ramifications. One of these social problems is that of child marriage. Many communities in Syria accepted the practice of child marriage prior to the civil war, with as many as 13% of girls under 18 being married. However, child marriage increased dramatically after the war began. In some areas, such as Lebanon, over 40% of displaced Syrian girls under the age of 18 are married. The early marriage of Syrian girls is directly connected to the war and its effects, and it results in an even greater level of suffering for these young brides.
The security situation in most areas of Syria has resulted in vulnerable populations — namely women and children — having higher rates of rape and sexual assaults. Many families have resorted to child marriage as a solution to this violence because they believe that a husband will protect their daughters.
Amirah was 15 years old when her father forced her to marry a 30-year-old man. She tried to refuse so that she could stay in school, but the violence in her hometown made the risk of being raped or kidnapped extremely high. Shortly after marriage, her husband began to beat and humiliate her because, at her young age, she was unable to manage a household. When she became pregnant and gave birth to a baby girl, he threatened to leave her for a more mature, educated woman. Shortly after the girl’s first birthday, Amirah’s husband divorced her; she had to return to her parents’ home with her daughter. The trauma of abuse left her with frequent headaches and other physical ailments, as well as severe mental health problems. Because she has already been married, there is little possibility of her finishing her education, finding any social and economic opportunities, or getting married again.
The conflict in Syria is the largest man-made humanitarian disaster since World War Two. Approximately 13.5 million people in Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance, including 4.9 million who are suffering in hard-to-reach, besieged areas. Over half of the Syrian population has been displaced more than once, and 4.8 million have fled to neighboring countries. In addition, 6.3 million have been forced to relocate within Syria, and children comprise almost half of all displaced Syrians. In peaceful areas, people tend to leave their homes because they are seeking out employment, education, or other opportunities. In Syria, however, violence continues to be the primary cause that people leave their homes and seek more secure places.
As of 2017, more than 400,000 people have died due to the war in Syria; additionally, the violence against civilians — especially against children — has risen dramatically. In places such as detention facilities, checkpoints, and even private homes, there are increasingly frequent reports of sexual violence, such as the systematic rape of women and teenage girls. This violence is particularly prevalent when the male heads of families are absent, often due to death or imprisonment.
Moreover, paramilitary groups are continually involved in abuses and violence, including massacres, killings, kidnapping of civilians (especially children), and rape as war tactics. Many NGOs continually report on the common occurrence of rape, sexual assaults, and harassment, including of minors and teenage girls. Reports from the UN and multiple NGOs indicate that the number of rape cases and other forms of extreme sexual violence against women and girls is between a few hundred to a few thousand annually.
The extreme violence is pushing a significant number of Syrian families, such as Amirah’s, to marry off their teenage daughters to protect them against compelling concerns, such as sexual assault and harassment. As a result, forced marriages — marriages in which one or both spouses do not consent to the union — of children were reported in some areas in Syria as a means of coping with the violence. Additionally, a significant number of parents push their teenage daughters to marry grown men, sometimes even men who are upwards of 20 years older than their daughters.
Unfortunately, marriage does not protect girls from violence; rather, in Amirah’s case, it subjected her to domestic violence and left her with a child that she loves but was unprepared to care for.
There are great challenges regarding food security, and today, most Syrians live in poverty. Hence, teenage girls are getting married off to ease some of the financial hardships of households.
Fatin’s grandparents raised her from the time she was two years old. As the war in Syria raged on, increasing poverty led her grandfather to force her into marriage with a 45-year-old man. As a 14-year-old girl she was unable to meet her husband’s sexual needs, thereby prompting bouts of rage and abuse. He broke her arm several times, and twice, she tried to escape by committing suicide. She frequently ran away to her grandparents’ home, but every time, her grandfather made her return to her husband. At 16, she gave birth to a little boy; soon after, her husband divorced her and took her son to Belgium. She may not ever see her son again, and like Amirah, her previous marriage makes potential future opportunities inaccessible.
The ongoing conflict in Syria significantly disrupted the country’s economy. There is a high rate of unemployment; unemployment rates in IDP (internally displaced persons) communities are upwards of 64% for young women and 23% for young men. Furthermore, unemployment rates have increased sharply among women who are now heads of households. 85% of Syrians now live in poverty and 69% live in absolute poverty, compared with only 35% before the war began.
Many Syrian families now believe that the early marriage of girls is a solution for dealing with poverty. The high unemployment rate that accompanies poverty drives parents to marry off their teenage daughters in order to mitigate their financial burden by reducing the number of mouths which they must feed.
A girl’s level of education plays a fundamental role in crucial decisions, like marriage, throughout her entire life.
Because of the conflict in Syria, the country’s infrastructure is devastated, especially the health and educational systems. Lack of access to education is known to be, on an international scale, one of the primary factors that lead to child marriage.
Before the conflict, 97% of Syrian children were in primary school, and Syria’s literacy rate was upwards of 90%; today, one-third of Syrian schools are no longer in operation, and one-half of Syrian children are not in school at all. Many parents no longer consider education to be a priority, especially for their daughters, since poverty has forced livelihood to become the main concern. As a result, many resort to finding employment for their sons and force their young daughters to marry to get rid of the financial burden. Once married, girls have little prospects for continuing their education.
Child marriage is a solution that many families turn to in order to deal with the extreme violence and poverty in Syria. However, this “solution” creates even greater problems and exacerbates the effects of war. In addition to placing girls in situations of domestic violence, teenage motherhood, and even greater poverty, it has put thousands of Syrian children at risk of becoming a lost generation, as the next post in this series will show.
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