Syrian children face seemingly endless hardships. For those who fled to Lebanon, another obstacle to their welfare has emerged: the threat of child marriage.
A newly completed survey conducted by UNFPA, the American University of Beirut and Sawa for Development and Aid, found that there has been alarming rise of child marriage among Syrian refugee children.
Of the 2,400 girls surveyed in Western Bekaa, more than a third of them between the ages of 20 and 24 had been married before the age of 18. Meanwhile, of the refugee girls currently between the ages of 15 and 17, an astonishing 24% are married.
“I am convinced that no girl should get married before the age of 18. But when it comes to reality, it is different,” Iman*, a Syrian refugee who was one of the data collectors, told UNFPA.
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As a widow, Iman explained that she alone provides for her father and three children.
“For this reason,” Iman went on, “my cousin, out of his good heart, wanted to help out by getting engaged to my daughter and supporting us financially.”
Her daughter is only 15.
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Before the Syrian conflict, child marriage would not have been a reality for Iman and her family, as it was a significantly less common practice. Some estimates show that child marriage rates are four times higher among Syrian refugees today than among Syrians before the crisis. This skyrocketing rate can be attributed to the terror, poverty and instability that the conflict has caused.
The survey was conducted in August and September of 2016 in areas of Western Bekaa known for their immense refugee populations. Among these areas — Bar Elias, Kab Elias and Marj — exploitation is rampant.
The survey found that the region’s school enrollment declined drastically as the girls aged. At age 9, over 70% of girls were enrolled in school. At age 16, that number dropped to less than 17%.
At the age of 13, #girls should be studying, not learning how to be wives. RT if you agree that we must #EndChildMarriage! #LetGirlsLearnpic.twitter.com/1AICfThOzE— UNFPA (@UNFPA) January 19, 2017
Reports indicate that girls with less education are at the highest risk of child marriage. In turn, the phenomenon increases the chance of pregnancy-related complications for girls, as well as poor health and economic possibilities for themselves and their own children.
“I tell my friends that getting married early will deprive them of their childhood,” said 16-year-old Syrian refugee Raneem Abras to UNFPA. Abras lives in Lebanon’s Chouf Mountains and works with a youth program that helps raise awareness of the harms of child marriage.
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These outreach programs are familiar with the power of information. They are engaging community leaders, health-care workers, and parents in the effort to bring the practice to an end. Safe spaces, legal counseling, and psychological care for women and girls at risk are being supported by the UNFPA.
Youth leaders, like Abras, are also eager to advocate for change. Through the UNFPA-supported Y-Peer program, youth are spreading the word among their networks about the harms of child marriage.
In November, the youth peers program reached 1,700 young men and women in Mount Lebanon.
“After every session I attend,” Abras said, “I wish I could go around educating everyone I know.”
* Indicates names have been changed to protect identities.