SYRIA: Child marriage soars among Syrian refugees in Jordan

[16 July 2014] - 

Child marriage among Syrian refugees in Jordan has more than doubled since the start of the conflict, leaving girls vulnerable to health problems, domestic abuse and poverty, the UN has warned.

According to a report by the UN children's agency, Unicef, almost a third of registered marriages among Syrian refugees in Jordan between January and March this year involved girls under 18. Jordan is home to more than 600,000 registered Syrian refugees.

The prevalance of such unions has been rising since 2011: before the war, 13% of registered marriages involved children. The surge is likely to have a damaging effect on the girls' future, the UN warns, jeopardising their health as well as their educational and financial prospects.

According to the report, 48% of girls marry men at least 10 years older. "Girls who marry before 18 years of age are at increased risk of complications during pregnancy and of being victims of abuse," said Robert Jenkins, Unicef's Jordan representative. "They also have more limited economic opportunities due to loss of schooling and can get trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty."

The study identifies several factors responsible for child marriage: alleviating poverty or the burden of a large family with many daughters; providing protection for young girls; continuing traditions, cultural or family; and serving as an escape for girls living in an abusive home environment.

Yasmine, a 16-year-old Syrian refugee who lives in a camp in Jordan, told Unicef she married a 24-year-old man nine months ago. She is five months pregnant. "When I was younger I was dreaming about being a fashion designer, but now I can't achieve that because of my situation," she said.

Yasmine's mother said Syria's civil war had caused many child refugees to drop out of school, which had increased rates of child marriage among refugees.

"Some respondents reported that a teenage daughter's poor performance at school could be reason enough to begin looking for a husband for her. In their view, there was little point in continuing with her education," the report says.

Interviews with Syrian refugees in Jordan, conducted by Unicef andSave the Children, suggest social and familial pressure lie at the root of many child marriages.

Maha, 13, said: "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."

Her husband, Abdullah, 23, said he married Maha after her father approached him through mutual acquaintances. "Her father wanted her to get married," he said. "She was going to register for school but there were a lot of rapes happening in the camps. Her father was scared something like that would happen to her, so he married her off. Also, it is so hard for a Syrian to find employment here – he was struggling with bills and rent."

Abdullah said the humanitarian crisis in his home country had affected social conventions. "If we were in Syria and Maha was around this age, her father wouldn't marry her off," he said. "She's too young at 13. No one marries off their daughters at this age in Syria."

Although child marriage is seen as a way of preserving cultures and protecting vulnerable girls from the uncertainties of refugee life, humanitarian agencies argue it is a destructive practice. "Child marriage is devastating for those girls concerned," said Justin Forsyth, chief executive of Save the Children. "These girls, who by fleeing the war in Syria have already been subjected to more than any child should, are at extreme risk of mental health issues resulting from social isolation, stress and abuse."

He said the physical effects of child marriage could sometimes be fatal. "The consequences for girls' health, of engaging in sexual activity while their bodies are still developing, are devastating. Girls under 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than fully grown women."

Child marriage and female genital mutilation will be high on the agenda at the Girl Summit next week, which aims to galvanise global action to end both practices within a generation. The summit will be held in London on 22 July and hosted by Unicef and the UK government, with British Prime Minister, David Cameron in attendance.

Refugees' names have been changed to protect their identities


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