“Every family says the same things: that they’re doing it to ‘protect her’,” explains UNICEF Lebanon’s Soha Boustani about the rise in child marriages in the camps. For cultural reasons, and because of high rates of abuse, having a husband is deemed better than having none, even for a young girl. The common payment of $US2500 for a bride is enough for a refugee family to pay rent to local landholders for a year. The rent frees up a small patch of land, with the landlord usually demanding backbreaking labour of a family member as well.
It’s not hard to see why many of these struggling families marry their daughters off. It means there’s one less mouth to feed, one less person to protect. Sometimes the landlord will make an offer to families for girls as young as 11 in exchange for the rent. Other times it is simply a man with enough money. There is now an organised trade in Syrian child brides. “Some men say they prefer them,” one Lebanese aid worker tells me, “because they are beautiful and obedient.”
The rise in Syrian child brides has arrived from a complex mix of old dowry rites and the vulnerability of millions of refugees living in poverty.
“Families start to see that there could be a price tag for their daughter,” Jihane Latrous from UNICEF Lebanon explains. “‘Give me your daughter and you don’t pay rent for three months.’”
In a refugee camp on the outer reaches of the city of Tripoli, I meet a young woman of 16. She’s a child bride, married at 14 to try to protect her from the threat of rape at the hands of militant forces in Syria. She is hunched over, sitting on the floor with me. She looks much older than she is – her eyes are old, hardened. “We all heard the stories about the rapes,” she says.
Her family heard about this violence against women and encouraged her to marry as soon as possible. She married at 14 and like many child brides, fell pregnant early and suffered with the complications common to children bearing children – anaemia, blood loss. Now this girl, still a child herself, is in a camp with a child to care for.
At a shelter in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, one of UNICEF’s local partner agencies gives girls a safe place to rebuild their lives after physical and sexual violence, and protects others from the risks associated with child marriage. The girls I meet there are wearing colourful clothing and hijabs. Some are holding each other’s hands like lifelines. After some initial shyness, they tell me their stories. Most have been dealing with the pressure to marry from the age of 12.
“I tell [my family] I am not ready for a husband,” one of them announces, and there is applause from her peers. They want to be teachers, lawyers. “Of the rights you have learnt about,” I ask, “which surprised you the most?”
At this the girls animate, hands shooting up. “Rights? We didn’t know women had rights,” several of them say.
Knowledge empowers, but these girls need more. They need a world that respects those rights. And more than anything, they need the war in Syria – and the war on women – to end.
This story originally appeared in October issue.