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Child marriage on the rise among Syrian refugees

By Mohammad Ghazal - Jun 11,2016 - Last updated at Jun 11,2016

In this recent photo, girls are seen at the Zaatari Refugee Camp. There has been a rise in early marriages among Syrian refugees (Photo by Nader Daoud)

AMMAN — Salma, a 13-year-old Syrian refugee, was playing with friends outside her tent when her step-mother asked her to come inside and told her to prepare to get married in two days.

Salma, who fled her home in Syria’s Daraa with her step-mother and two sisters and lived in Zaatari camp, was shocked and thought her step-mother was joking.

“When I entered the tent, she was sitting with a few women and a man in his early 30s. She took me to the side, asked me to wear a red dress and said ‘Congratulations, this man is your husband now. I approved your marriage’,” Salma, not here real name, told The Jordan Times in a phone interview.

Shocked and in tears, Salma told her step-mother she did not want to marry as she was still a young girl.

“My step-mother slapped me and told me she had already given them her word and that I would disgrace the family’s honour if I refused. She forced me to get married and I could not do anything about it as my father was still in Syria at that time,” Salma added.

For the teenager, marriage was only the start of her problems.

“I lived with this man in his tent outside the Zaatari camp in Mafraq. A few days after our wedding night, my husband’s cousin came to my tent in the morning and raped me. My husband knew about it but did not do anything,” Salma said.

“I told my mother-in-law and she managed to stop the cousin from raping at times, but he used to wait for her to leave the tent and then come and do it again. My husband was silent the whole time. He knew,” the teenager explained.

She continued: “I did not know what to do or where to go. This only ended when one day I suffered from severe bleeding and they took me to a hospital, where I explained what happened to me and how much I suffered.”

Her husband and his cousin were arrested and imprisoned and Salma was divorced and sent back to her step-mother’s mobile home in the camp mid-2014.

Her suffering was not over.

“My step-mother did not know that I suffered bleeding and was stitched. She would have killed me. She just told me I was stupid for not being a good, abiding wife and she thought I was divorced because of that,” Salma said, adding that by then, her father had joined them in Zaatari.

Salma said her father was angry about her divorce and insisted that she remarry to avoid disgracing the family.

“He did not know what happened to me and I never told him. I had to accept getting married again,” she said.

The teenager was married again in late 2014 to a 36-year-old man.. Now 16, she has a 9-month-old baby and is pregnant with twins.

“Even this man is not good to me at all,” Salma said, referring to her new husband.

Salma tried to commit suicide several times and she received psychiatric counselling, a case protection manager who dealt with Salma’s case told The Jordan Times.

“Salma’s situation was very severe. We thought that after she had the first baby, she would stop thinking of committing suicide and take care of the baby, but that was not the case. However, she improved after the sessions,” the case manager said.

Salma is only one of many girls forced to marry early in Zaatari camp. Figures from the Chief Islamic Justice Department show that early marriages represent about 35 per cent of all marriages of Syrian refugees in 2015, up from 18 per cent in 2012.

Of around 500 Syrian females who marry each month, 170 are under the age of 18, according to the figures.

“Unfortunately, early marriage is on rise among Syrian refugees both inside and outside the camp,” the case manager said.

Early marriage among Syrian refugees is much more common than that among Jordanians, for whom around 13 per cent of marriages involve minors.

 

‘Radical social changes needed’

 

Hussein Khuzai, a sociology professor at Al Balqa Applied University, said women and children suffered most at times of conflict.

“We live in a patriarchal society, where women are not usually listened to, unfortunately,” Khuzai told the Jordan Times in a recent interview.

“Early marriage is on the rise among Syrians and parents seem to be okay with it as they believe when their daughters get married they will have fewer financial problems and burdens,” said Khuzai.

“There is a need for greater awareness and radical social change to put an end to this practice. Those young girls who get married do not have a say and will not have a future because of their parents’ decisions,” the professor said.

“These child-mothers face tremendous psychological pressure from their families and society, and are left with heavy responsibilities that they cannot deal with. They are still children,” he added.

Nida Yassin, a spokesperson at UNHCR Jordan, said the UNHCR and other international agencies working with Syrian refugees focus heavily on this issue.

“Because early marriage is evident among Syrian refugees, we hold several awareness programmes for parents and for girls themselves on the consequences of early marriages and problems they might face,” Yassin told The Jordan Times.

Young girls like Salma are deprived of their childhoods and the better future that they fled their country for, her case manager said.

Salma, who is due to give birth in four months, said: “What I miss the most is my mother who left us when we were in Syria, my school and my classmates.”

“If I have two baby girls, I will do the impossible to let them study, become very well-educated, have a job and a better life. I want them to have enough time to play and enjoy life before they get married and suffer from marriage. I do not want them to end up like me living a miserable life at an early age,” Salma said.

 

“I miss playing with my friends and I do not have the time to do that. I am not even allowed to do that because I spend my whole day trying to take care of my child and as my baby gets older, I will not even have time to watch TV. What a life!” Salma said through tears.

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