Child marriage among Syrian refugees continues to increase at an alarming rate in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, leaving young girls vulnerable to abuse, health issues, and poverty.
In Jordan, rates of child marriage have more than doubled since the Syrian conflict began three years ago. According to a report by UNICEF – the UN’s children’s agency – 32 percent of registered marriages in Jordan in the first quarter of 2014 involved girls under the age of 18. Of these girls, 48% of them have married men who are at least 10 years older.
“Girls that marry before 18 years of age are at increased risk of complications during pregnancy and of being victims of abuse,” said Robert Jenkins, UNICEF Representative in Jordan. “They also have more limited economic opportunities due to loss of schooling and can get trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty.”
Interviews conducted with Syrian child brides in Jordan by UNICEF and Save the Children show that social and familial pressure are root causes behind the trend.
Maha, age 13, said in an article published in The Guardian:
My father forced me to get married because he heard about a rape case nearby. He was scared the same would happen to my sister and me. He forced my sister to get married first, and then he made me get married right after that. It was all very forceful and I had no choice. I didn’t want to get married. I would’ve liked to finish my studies, but I couldn’t do that.
In Lebanon, there are no official statistics about the growing rate of child marriage. The problem is, however, widespread enough that the Lebanese government has drafted legislation requiring approval from both civil and religious courts before a minor can be married.
While the draft law will eventually be presented to parliament, it will most likely face strong opposition from religious leaders. Currently, only religious courts have to give approval for a marriage involving a child who has not yet reached the age of consent: typically 14 to 17 for Muslim girls and 14 to 18 for Christian girls.
The National Commission for Lebanese Women is also working on a campaign to increase awareness about the health and financial issues surrounding child marriage. The group is also lobbying the government to ratify the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age, and Registration of Marriages.
In Turkey, 1 million Syrian refugees have flooded the borders, approximately 75 percent of whom are women and children. Of this group, 50 percent are under 18. Without a male head of household to provide protection, female Syrian refugees are left vulnerable to the threat of rape, sexual abuse, and harassment.
Paid matchmaking has become a booming business in Turkish towns on the Syrian border, even though the practice is illegal.
“Human trafficking and all problems associated with it – abuse, rape and exploitation – have increased since 2012,” according to an anonymous women’s rights activist from Gaziantep, a Turkish border town that has become a hub for Syrian activists and refugees, who was quoted by The Guardian. “We hear of more and more cases of ‘temporary marriages’, basically sex work, but women are afraid to talk about this openly. It is worrying that the idea of temporary marriages is now being normalized in Turkey. It puts the veneer of respectability and religious approval on sexual abuse and exploitation.”
In all three countries, activists are working to provide more information to those who need it most: young girls and their parents. Their hope is that by teaching them about the medical and financial ramifications of child marriage, families will no longer force their daughters into marriages that will ultimately harm them.