DUBAI: Nadia, 14, should be in school in her native Syria. Instead she is married to someone 13 years her senior in neighboring Lebanon.
She was married off by her father, Yasser, a Syrian refugee, on the promise of $8,000, half upfront and the rest when the marriage contract was signed.
“Her suitor approached me when she was studying,” Yasser told Arab News. “He promised he would treat her right and help me open a minimarket to better my finances. But he turned out to be a liar and an abuser.”
Among refugees in Lebanon, Nadia’s plight is not uncommon. Grinding poverty and a dearth of opportunities have forced many families to make similarly desperate decisions — in effect selling their daughters to secure a semblance of financial security.
Yasser regrets his decision. “Her husband won’t let her talk to me,” he said. “I called once. He overheard her saying baba (father) and then snatched the phone away. I felt like my heart was set on fire.”
In addition to the perils of poverty in exile, the estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon must also endure the myriad of challenges facing their host country amid its crippling economic crisis.
Add to that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the political paralysis in Beirut and the ongoing violence in Syria that militates against the return of displaced families, and the options for many appear bleak.
Against such a backdrop, marrying off children is seen by some communities — including impoverished Lebanese — as one of the few avenues available to them.
Reem, who is Lebanese, was only 16 when she consented to an arranged marriage. She did not object to the idea because several of her friends and neighbors were also tying the knot at around the same time.
One of the main factors in her decision — which in reality was only partly her own to make — was a desire to ease the financial burden on her parents. Now, three years into her marriage, she feels trapped.
“I wish I never went through it,” she told Arab News. “What did I know? I have a daughter. Where will I go with her? I thought I was helping my parents to have one less mouth to feed. Now it seems I added one.”
In Lebanon and Syria, children continue to be married off, with neither government paying much heed. Under Lebanon’s constitution, personal-status laws are decreed by each individual sect, combining common law with religious doctrine.
As a result, matters such as marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance are often governed by religious courts. Each of the major sects has a different legal age for marriage; for Catholics it is 14, Sunnis have raised it to 18, and Shiites have set it at 15.
According to the constitution: “The state guarantees that the personal status and religious interests of the population, to whatever religious sect they belong, shall be respected.”
Civil society groups in Lebanon have long urged the government to introduce an all-encompassing personal-status law.
A report published by Human Rights Watch in 2017 said it would be a “common sense measure” to raise, without delay, the minimum age of marriage to 18 without any exceptions. Such a law was drafted that same year but never passed.
“The impact on girls is devastating,” Aya Majzoub, a researcher for HRW, told Arab News. “They are at heightened risk of marital rape, domestic violence and a range of health problems due to early childbearing.
“Lebanon’s parliament can help end this practice. The Lebanese government and local authorities should develop programs to prevent child marriages, such as empowering girls with information and support networks, as well as engaging parents and community members about the negative effects of child marriage.”
The high number of children who have missed out on an education in Lebanon over the past two years, because of the pandemic and the economic crisis, has increased the likelihood of premature marriage, particularly among vulnerable refugee communities.
A recent report titled Searching For Hope published by UNICEF, the UN’s children’s agency, revealed that 31 percent of children in Lebanon are out of school and that enrollment in classes had dropped to 43 percent in the current academic year.
The figures are thought to be much worse among refugee communities, where in many cases children have little access to any education at all.
Aid agencies have made efforts to end the custom of underage marriage by raising awareness of the effects it has on girls’ lives and the potential for traumatic physical damage to pre-teens whose bodies are not sufficiently developed to endure the rigors of childbirth.
KAFA, which translates as “enough” in Arabic, is a Lebanese nongovernmental organization that was established in 2005 with the aim of eliminating all forms of gender-based violence and exploitation.
In 2016, it launched a campaign to highlight the plight of child brides. It also provides psychosocial support to survivors.
The campaign went viral on social media thanks to an extremely powerful image that showed a middle-aged man posing with a 12-year-old girl on their wedding day.
“Based on the abused women who come to our center, our statistics show that 20 percent of them were actually child brides,” Celine Al-Kik, supervisor of the KAFA support center, told Arab News.
“There is a link between violence and child marriages. We are permitted by law to intervene and provide legal assistance when the underage girl is kidnapped, and when her parents oppose her marriage when her suitor has her convinced.”
Besides legal reforms and active public-awareness campaigns, aid agencies believe the key to ending child marriage is poverty reduction and providing vulnerable communities with economic security.
“Families experiencing the economic crisis in Lebanon are increasingly resorting to marrying off young girls as a coping strategy for the deepening crisis,” Nana Ndeda, policy director with Save the Children, told Arab News.
“It is important that the economic drivers of child marriage are urgently addressed. Girls who marry are most likely to drop out of school and have limited access to decent work. Child marriage is a violation of human rights.”
Rawda Mazloum, a Syrian refugee, campaigns on the issues of women’s rights and gender-based violence in the camps of eastern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
She organizes community workshops and partners with local nongovernmental organizations, such as KAFA, to try to raise awareness about the growing rates of child marriage, divorces and violence within the Syrian refugee community.
“The youngest girl I know of (who got married) was only 13,” Mazloum told Arab News. “Her parents, like the rest, were struggling. These girls often get abused. They are not aware of their rights as they are still children. They are victims of ignorance, poverty and war.”
As the crises on both sides of the Syrian-Lebanese border bleed into one another, the daily fight for survival, and the desperate decisions that come with it, is unlikely to end soon.
A report published in 2019 by Save The Children in Lebanon, titled No I Don’t, lists poverty, conflict and lack of education as the primary factors driving child marriage.
However, it notes that child marriage can also be a means by which families try to protect their daughters from sexual harassment.
Parents who have married off young daughters often say security is a key motivation. Indeed, when refugees and impoverished households live in densely populated spaces among many strangers, there is a higher perceived risk of sexual harassment and violence toward girls.
Providing a male figure who can offer protection is often a consideration. In the case of Yasser and his daughter Nadia, however, the opposite proved to be the case.
“I thought I was offering her a better alternative, a better life,” he told Arab News. “But he wasn’t serious about her. He used her for fun.”