Child Marriage in Syrian Refugee Camps

By Mariam Alshamsi

Introduction

Child marriage is a human rights violation and a form of gender-based violence under international law, because of the physical and psychological damage it causes to girls, such as long-term health issues and social and economic consequences. In the Arab world, one out of every five girls marry before the age of 18 (Chaban, 2018). Chakraborty (2019) explains that although the Arab region has made considerable progress in terms of reducing child marriage since 2010, escalating and persistent violence in the Arab world has hampered this development. As a result of conflicts, child marriage is used as a negative coping mechanism by many displaced and refugee families, especially in Syria. In such environments, the reasons why families choose to marry off young girls are complex. Chaban (2018) describes how the destabilization of the social and political order and militarization exacerbates vulnerabilities, leading to increased poverty and insecurity. There is also a fear of rape and sexual abuse/assault directed at women and girls, which becomes a gendered security issue. As a result, child marriage becomes a negative coping strategy with the expectation that a girl will be cared for and covered by her new husband or his family. However, Chakraborty (2019) finds that the effects of the marriage on the girl contradict this presumption and potentially expose girls to more abuse. Domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, severe reproductive health effects, sexually transmitted diseases, and emotional distress are common outcomes of this form of marriage. This paper explores how the low economic and social status, including lower educational attainment among Syrian refugee families, leads to an increase in the prevalence of child marriage in Syrian refugee camps. The paper will also demonstrate why child marriage has increased in the post-conflict period in Syrian refugee camps.

Literature Review

Violence against women has a long history, but the frequency and severity of such violence have varied over time and continue to do so today. Whether in society at large or in a personal relationship, such abuse is often used as a tool for the subjugation of women (Crowell & Burgess, 1996). Burn (2005) defines violence against women as any act of gender-based violence that causes or is likely to cause a woman any type of suffering including physical, sexual, or mental harm. The issue of gender-based violence has recently been officially recognized when the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (DEVAW), passed in in December 1993, acknowledged that violence against women infringes on women’s rights and fundamental freedoms and urged states in the international community to work toward its abolition (OHCHR). In 2005, KAFA, a feminist Lebanese organization based in Beirut and initiated by Lebanese women, aimed at eradicating legal, economic, and social discrimination against women. The name of the organization means “enough” in Arabic, and it aims to achieve comprehensive gender equality by using a variety of strategies, including lobbying for law reform and the implementation of new laws and policies; shaping public opinion, practices, and mentality; conducting research and training; supporting women and children who have been victims of violence; and providing social, legal, and psychological support (KAFA, 2018).

One of the most common forms of gender-based violence is child marriage because it denies girls their childhood and is a human rights issue, but it is also a health and safety issue, as girls typically have less control than their husbands and in-laws. Physical and sexual abuse, as well as sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, are risks for child brides (Burn, 2005). UNICEF (2013) defines child marriage as a marriage that takes place when either or both spouses are under the age of 18, where they enter a socially recognized arrangement for a conjugal marriage. This type of marriage can either be consensual or executed coercively and is triggered by a series of factors including social, cultural, economic, and religious reasons. Children, both male and female, are affected by child marriage, but it is not as common for males as it is for females (UNICEF, 2019). From an Islamic perspective, Baderin (2010) explains that the regulations relating to marriage and involvement in public affairs are of particular concern to Muslim women. Not only is there a right to marry freely and with complete agreement, but there is also a necessity that state parties take adequate efforts to ensure that the spouses’ rights and obligations are equal before, during, and after marriage. Baderin further notes that every citizen has the right and opportunity to participate in the conduct of public affairs without discrimination based on sex. This includes the right to vote and be elected, as well as equal access to public service in one’s country.

According to Burn (2005), while child marriage rates have decreased, eight countries have a prevalence rate of more than 50% including Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Guinea, Mali, Niger, and South Sudan. Furthermore, while the rate of child marriage fell by 15% in 2018, the number of women married before the age of 18 remains high. Approximately 650 million girls and women today were married before the age of 18, with 5% of them in the Middle East and North Africa (UNICEF, 2019). According to Monger (2013), in Arab culture, when a girl hits puberty at the age of 12 or 13, she is traditionally veiled. However, in other situations, she will be veiled around the age of 10 or 11 and cared for by older women to ensure that she does not lose her purity. The article shows that the veil is a symbol of a girl’s transition into womanhood, and every attempt is made to marry her as quickly as possible after she is veiled. Although outside forces have loosened some of the traditional veil restrictions, contact between the sexes is still frowned upon. Therefore, before the war took place in Syria, child marriage roughly accounted for 13% of all marriages (Alking, 2019). Child marriages violate human rights by exposing girls to domestic violence, hunger, increased health threats, and, in many cases, social exclusion and limited educational opportunities (Magnay, 2016).

 In the post-conflict period in any country, there are always people fleeing their homelands to find better places to live, but not everyone is able to escape conflict zones. Alking (2019) notes that many people become refugees and live in camps that are temporary facilities, intended to provide protection and assistance to people who have been forced to leave their homes due to conflict, violence, or persecution. Although camps are not meant to be long-term solutions, they do offer a safe haven where refugees can receive medical care, food, shelter, and other basic emergency services. Burn (2005) explains that when families are weak, forced marriage is more likely because a daughter’s early marriage may relieve some financial pressures for families living in poverty and experiencing financial instability. In reality, poverty is the best predictor of early marriages. 

Anderson (2014) explains that child marriages increased in Syrian societies after the war. Many mothers expressed their concern regarding their daughters’ early marriage. They claimed that if it were not for their fear of the high rates of rape and assault incidents taking place in the camps, they would not have married their daughters off at such a young age. The reason for this is that such incidents can result in the impregnation of the girl, and that would bring shame to the family (De Smedt, 1998). In addition, if the girl is not doing well in school, her parents are likely to think that her education is useless, so they marry her off instead (Anderson, 2014). 

In an interview conducted by Anderson (2014), the author interviewed a girl and her husband, Maha and Abdullah, a Syrian refugee who was only 13 years old when she married a 23-year-old man. Her circumstances and the reasons for her marriage are typical of many of the girls living in camps. Maha explains that because a rape case took place nearby, her father forced her to marry as he feared that Maha and her sister would suffer the same fate. Thus, he pushed her sister to get married first, and then he compelled Maha to marry shortly after (Anderson, 2014). Maha says that the marriage was forceful, and she did not have a choice between completing her education or getting married. She hoped to complete her education first but was unable to do so (Anderson, 2014). Abdullah, Maha’s husband, says he met her father through mutual contacts and married her since Maha’s father wanted her to marry even though she was planning to enroll in school, but there were a lot of rapes taking place in the camps (Anderson, 2014). Abdullah also mentions that it is extremely difficult for a Syrian to find work, and Maha’s father was struggling to pay his expenses and rent, while the humanitarian crisis in his native country had influenced societal customs (Anderson, 2014). He also adds that if they were in Syria, Maha’s father would not marry her off at this age, since 13 is too young to marry and no one marries off their daughters at this age in Syria (Anderson, 2014). Additionally, many other issues come with living in a refugee camp including economic, social, and educational factors (Chakraborty, 2019).

Methodology

This paper is a critical analysis of the issue of child marriage in Syrian refugee camps. It begins by briefly describing the Syrian conflict of 2011 and how it contributed to the increase of child marriages in Syria in the post-conflict period. This paper will look at the positive and negative views on child marriage and why it has become prevalent in Syrian refugee camps specifically. It is a descriptive research paper that is based on cases, interviews, and statistics from refugee camps, which help explain the major factors that have contributed to the increase of this phenomenon. One limitation faced in this study is the lack of official marriage registrations, which made it difficult to obtain valid information about the prevalence of child marriage since many refugees did not have the documentation required to complete some of the initial registration steps. For example, Syrian refugees in Lebanon face a variety of obstacles when it comes to registering births and marriages, restricting their access to services including shelter and education (Chaban, 2018).

The Syrian Conflict (2011)

Blanchard et al. (2015) note that the fighting that took place during the Syrian conflict of 2011 continues today, pitting government forces and their foreign allies against a diverse group of anti-government militants, some of whom are also fighting among themselves. Since March 2011, the violence has forced over 2.6 million out of a total population of more than 22 million Syrians to seek shelter in neighboring countries. According to the article “11,000 children killed so far in Syrian conflict,” (2013) during the three years of war between the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad and the rebel groups, children as young as one, were subjected to torture and summary executions, and are referred to as Syria’s secret toll of child casualties. The article explains that the rest were “caught in the crossfire,” with their homes or schools being bombed or gassed and boys outnumbering girls by around two to one among the 11,420 children aged 17 and under who were killed, with those aged 13 to 17 being the most likely victims of targeted killings and executions. Thus, fighters on both sides should be educated on how to avoid endangering civilians (11,000 children killed, 2013).

 Blanchard et al. (2015) note that millions of Syrians are internally displaced and are in need of humanitarian aid, with the U.S. continuing to be the largest bilateral provider, with over $1.7 billion in funding reported. In the short term, neither pro-Assad forces nor their adversaries seem capable of consolidating their battlefield advances or achieving outright victory in Syria. The authors explain that the conflict between ISIS and other anti-Assad movements has escalated; local sectarian and political tensions in Lebanon and Iraq are being exacerbated by the Syrian crisis, thereby posing a danger to national stability. El Arab & Sagbakken (2019) found that the number of Syrian refugees fleeing to other countries has been steadily increasing. As of July 2018, there were 668,123 Syrian refugees registered in Jordan and 976,000 Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon, suggesting that these countries have the highest population density of refugees. 

According to Chaban (2018), conflicts that keep girls out of school increase the risk of child marriage. Girls who marry young are more likely to drop out of school, become unemployed, and suffer from serious health problems, in comparison to their unmarried peers. This process helps perpetuate a cycle of poverty, lack of education, and unemployment. Tasker (2018) found that in Lebanon, the number of displaced Syrian women who marry before they turn 18 has risen to 41% and the number of recorded child marriages involving Syrians in Jordan has increased from 12% in 2011 to 36% in 2018. Chakraborty (2019) reported that refugee families faced major obstacles because of conflict and displacement, leading them to live in poor conditions, poverty, and insecurity. War and migration, according to women, have exacerbated economic conditions, making everyday survival extremely difficult. In addition, most women complained that their living conditions were filthy and crowded, with many family members sharing small tents or apartments. The financial situation in the household was characterized as dire and likely to worsen, almost all girls preferred to work to help support their families and the majority of respondents expressed financial strains as a result of high rental costs, low wages, and a lack of secure or regular employment opportunities (Mourtada et al., 2017). One participant explained that they work for a day and then they stop due to inconsistency; living costs are high and the landowners take advantage of this fact by seeking higher rents, thereby making it harder for the workers to earn money (Mourtada et al., 2017).

Economic Factors

Alking (2019) explains that the Syrian conflict contributed to the rise of married children and on the economic front, poverty has grown as a result of widespread unemployment, job loss, and a reduction in income sources. Destruction, terror, murder, pillage, and rape have spread as a result of the security system’s failure and tragedies occur in the absence of stability, whether they are political, economic, social, or health related. Alking further reports that death, injuries, and refugees are not the only casualties of battle. Poverty, ignorance, societal disintegration, crime, and other social diseases spread during wars, and the Syrian war was one of the key reasons for child marriage practices in Syrian refugee camps. In addition, the number of child marriages rose from 12% of all marriages in 2011 to just under 32% at the beginning of 2014, whereas before the war (2000-2009), child marriages accounted for roughly 13% of all marriages in Syria. Although child marriage is not common in today’s Arab world, it has become more common in recent years because of the increase in conflicts and the need for security (El Arab & Sagbakken, 2019). 

El Arab & Sagbakken (2019) found that economic factors largely contribute to the increase of child marriages in Syrian refugee camps. In their study of female Syrian refugees, the authors discovered that many girls see early marriage as a way to escape poverty and unemployment. Chakraborty (2019) observed that, before the civil war, the majority of Syrian child marriages took place in poor and rural areas. However, as economic stability became a problem for all families following the refugee crisis, refugees in camps have had little to no job opportunities and are often denied work permits. Therefore, they are almost completely reliant on humanitarian assistance. 

As a result, families marry off their daughters so they can be counted under the category of the other family, thus reducing the number of mouths that require feeding for her original family (Chakraborty, 2019). El Arab & Sagbakken (2019) explain that since young girls have limited financial resources, the perception of a lack of safety is often linked to a lack of financial access. El Arab and Sagbakken also note that due to the war, these girls have been forced to relocate to Lebanon, where they have minimal schooling and educational opportunities, leaving them with only low-skilled job opportunities. Therefore, they choose an early marriage out of desperation, if they receive proposals from well-established men. In addition, conflict and displacement pose significant challenges to refugee family operations, as focus group participants identified dire living conditions, poverty, insecurity, and fear as potential motivators (Chakraborty, 2019). Given the desperate state of some families’ finances, marrying a daughter off at a young age can help alleviate a family’s overall financial burden (El Arab & Sagbakken, 2019). 

According to Izeldeen (2014), child marriage is seen as a survival tactic in rural communities or low-income households. The vast majority of the study’s participants were poor, unemployed, and married young. During an evaluation of refugee populations, El Arab & Sagbakken (2019) found that Syrian families in Jordan and Lebanon were in serious financial hardship. These hardships arise as it can be difficult to help the whole family because many family members depend on family savings and employment is scarce. Therefore, mothers assume that marrying off children is necessary because it increases the economic prospects of the girl child. According to the UN Women Study, economic reasons for marrying at a young age include women’s access to housing (20.1%) and offering options to mitigate financial problems (28.4%) (2019). Alking (2019) explains how families also fear for their daughters’ reputation if they go to work while also facing financial pressures and the inability of families to meet basic needs. As a result, child marriage is seen as a means of reducing the number of people in a family, as well as the associated economic burden of feeding, clothing, and caring for the child. One refugee explained that some people marry off their daughters at a young age because it is customary, while others do it to relieve financial stress. For example, some fathers are unemployed and must support five or six people, so marrying off a daughter would help to reduce the financial burden (Mourtada et al., 2017).

Human trafficking is quite prevalent in Syrian refugee camps as young girls between the ages of 8 and 17 are sold away to older men at varying price ranges depending on different factors (Mandić, 2017). Mourtada et al. (2017) found that bride prices (mahr) can be very low in Syrian refugee camps. Due to lower earnings and assets, the mahr is lower than it was before the war. The authors explain that the mahr has become highly dependent on the groom’s nationality and whether he is related to the bride. The mahr in the past varied by area in Syria, typically ranging between $100 and $500 and sometimes reaching $3000. The study goes on to describe that it was calculated to be $100 or less if the groom is Syrian and higher if the groom is not Syrian; however, most grooms are Syrian. For many families, the mahr was usually lower, and they were often removed entirely as many families are desperate to marry off their daughters. 

Social factors 

Chakraborty (2019) also found that social factors such as culture, greatly contribute to the increase in child marriages. In many cultures, there is a gendered division of labor in the household, with women typically performing unpaid labor, men being the breadwinners, and daughters being treated as burdens and married off. Habib (2018) explains that Syrian social norms differ by religion, gender, and between rural and urban areas, but the general essence of these norms often places women in secondary positions viewing them as a source of honor or shame for the family. The most severe oppression of women occurs in the home. For example, after school, girls are required to assist their mothers, while boys are free to do whatever they want. Even if both partners work the same hours, married women are still responsible for all household work. Habib also mentions that Syrian culture assigns many negative traits to women and many positive traits to men: women are seen as poor and oppressed, while men are courageous, compassionate, and hardworking. However, these examples cannot be applied universally to all Syrian families because Syrian culture is extremely complex, and not everyone follows traditional customs and norms. Additionally, the author suggests that many Syrian women value their independence and reject traditional social norms, particularly if they have familial support, even though they are not accepted by many segments of Syrian society.

Nonetheless, Chakraborty (2019) notes that poverty weakens these women and leaves them unable to make their own choices, leaving their fates in the hands of the family’s male head. When opposed to their safety and economic needs, it becomes clear that child marriage is the lesser of two evils for refugee families. However, when considering the long-term consequences of child marriage, this argument falls short. The study demonstrates that child marriage often results in the girl losing her freedom of movement and work, the legitimization of domestic and sexual abuse, and denial of her access to education. 

Child marriage is favored in some communities and families in these societies actively search for opportunities for their children to marry due to several social values that directly affect the behavior of individuals (Alking, 2019). The first two values are religion and honor, as they are of critical importance in Syrian society, and they need to be maintained (Chakraborty, 2019). These two social factors value “sutra,” which is an Islamic tradition of securing immunity from adversity. In order to protect her family’s integrity, the woman must uphold her chastity because the loss of a woman’s chastity harms the family’s reputation and her own. If she is raped, no one would consider marrying her as she will be considered a “used good” (Alking, 2019). As a result, El Arab & Sagbakken (2019) explain that marriage is seen as the only secure path to sexual intercourse and families strive to marry their daughters off at a young age to shield them from temptation and to protect the family’s integrity. Thus, it is important for girls to get married, before rape or assault incidents prevent them from marrying at all. Mourtada et al. (2017) also explain that because of the high prevalence and fear of sexual harassment and rape by men and guards of younger children in refugee camps, avoiding premarital sex is not easy. 

Many participants in one UNHCR study mentioned that the belief in “sutra” triggers child marriage. More specifically, young girls are encouraged to marry an older man to achieve “sutra” (Chakraborty, 2019). Therefore, Chakraborty states that child marriage is regarded as ideal in many regional interpretations of Islam, leading Syrian societies to regard their daughters’ early marriage as a sign of family honor (2019). An example of this would be the 14-year-old Syrian girl who married a 30-year-old man and said that she would rather be violated by one man than by all the men in town. 

Alking (2019) states that other social factors include the clan or tribe where members of Syrian tribes attempt to increase the number of members through early marriage and polygamy, since a large clan is seen as a means of social security and influence. Furthermore, parental authority is vital in Syrian culture. That is, the essence of the relationship between parents and children is marked by the father’s absolute authority and power over his children’s destiny. Therefore, the father does not involve his children in making life-altering decisions such as decisions regarding marriage. Finally, Alking posits that some families will consent to the marriage of their young daughters if the groom is a relative, believing that the girl will not be separated from her family and will not feel alone. Such decisions are mostly made without the girl’s consent.

Swan (2018) states that young women married to older men are often socially isolated and powerless, relying heavily on their husbands to protect their rights. Through interviews, Alking (2019) found that the most common issue was the inability to make decisions. One woman said that when her son became ill, she was unable to contact her husband, so they waited for him to come home until the next day because she was afraid that if they went to the hospital without his permission, he would be furious. Alking describes that not only are these women socially isolated, but many women claimed that their husbands were only concerned with fulfilling their sexual instincts and having children and were unconcerned about their wives’ wellbeing. El Arab & Sagbakken (2019) found that the reason why many women get married so early in their lives is because they view the lack of male care as a potential reason for early marriage and acquiring a male protector through marriage would be the best way to avoid possible attacks from strangers. The authors note that the belief that such men are incapable of providing adequate physical safety for the women and girls in their families, promotes the acceptance of early marriage, a pattern which revealed that marriage is used as a means of safety for girls in the community. 

Therefore, the belief that child marriage can improve a child’s physical safety is a major factor behind the rise in child marriages. El Arab & Sagbakken (2019) also found that in Lebanon and Jordan, several men believed that child marriage was a way to shield children from abuse and the possibility of sexual assault. The authors observed that owing to social rejection, girls who had been subjected to various types of sexual assault and harassment could find it difficult to marry later, thereby increasing the acceptance of the practice. As such, the parents’ decision to encourage their daughters to marry sexual predators may be hastened by the associated difficulties of being shunned by society. Thus, if a girl is raped, she is forced to get married.

Educational Factors

Alking (2019) notes that education is essential and the prevalence of child marriage in Syrian culture is both a cause and a result of a lack of education. Furthermore, child marriage is increased by a community’s lack of education, causing underage girls to drop out of school. Chakraborty (2019) elaborates, stating that child marriage is perceived as a straightforward solution to economic and social problems. However, it perpetuates a cycle of poverty, lack of jobs, and denial of children’s rights. The value of education, or the lack thereof, is an important, yet often ignored factor. Chakraborty found that over 40% of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon do not attend school, making child marriage a viable option for securing a future. As a result, women are trapped in a cycle of dependency because they are unable to acquire the credentials and skills necessary to enter the labor market and ultimately become economically self-sufficient. According to the study, education gives girls a stronger voice in the home by ensuring their freedom, and according to the World Bank, each year of secondary school decreases the likelihood of child marriage by 4% to 6%. Mourtada et al. (2017) mention that according to both mothers and service providers, one of the major challenges faced by teenage girls because of the Syrian conflict is the disruption of education. Young women, particularly unmarried women, were upset, claiming that the war had interrupted their education and jeopardized their future, as many had hoped to pursue a college education and a career before the war, but are now focused on finding a job to help their families, especially when male family members remained in Syria, died, or went missing. 

Many women may have been encouraged to marry before they turned 18 and many parents may have been pushed to marry off their daughters at a younger age, due to the lack of educational opportunities (Mourtada et al., 2017). Chakraborty (2019) states that child marriage causes problems for everyone, not just those who are in refugee camps. For example, child marriages are illegal in European countries and the laws are silent on what should be done with refugees resettled in Europe. Countries such as Germany have made it clear that they will not accept child marriages, but it is unclear what will happen to child brides and their children because family reunification laws may not apply to them, and the undocumented and illegal existence of their unions will jeopardize their hard-won legal status. Mourtada et al. (2017) interviewed a Syrian refugee mother who explained that many women said that they were “pro-education,” prioritized education over marriage, and they wanted their daughters to reach the secondary level at least. However, due to their displacement, they resort to early marriages in fear of the future, which was the case with this mother; she married off both her daughters after the war began, when one was 18 and the other was 12. The authors suggest that married women tended to be less concerned with education, possibly because they stopped attending school once they married or became pregnant and were required to care for their husbands and children.

Conclusion 

In conclusion, child marriage is a human rights violation and a form of gender-based violence due to the physical and psychological damage it causes. Over time, it increased in the Arab world because of the increased conflicts that took place in the region. In Syrian refugee camps specifically, the main reasons behind this phenomenon are economic difficulties, social expectations, and the lack of education. Child marriage leads to greater exposure to domestic violence against child brides and also causes adverse health issues. Swan (2018) notes that the Syrian refugee community’s high levels of trauma have increased the risk of child spouses ending up in violent or exploitative circumstances. This is reflected in a study by Jordan’s Higher Population Council, which found that 60% of registered female victims of violence were forced or child brides (Swan, 2018). Tasker (2018) further notes that the biggest cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19 is pregnancy and other childbirth-related factors. Child marriage is proven to have detrimental consequences that can last a lifetime. Unfortunately, even after its recognition as a violation of women’s and girls’ rights, child marriage is still prevalent to this day and is perpetuated in impoverished areas, such as the Syrian refugee camps. For that reason, countries need to implement stricter rules and regulations regarding the issue and empower women and girls from an early age by educating them about the risks of child marriage.

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