The Challenges Facing Young Women Refugees
By Olivia Alabaster
Beirut, Lebanon. Escaping war as a refugee is no one’s dream. Many teenage girls escaping Syria to neighbouring Lebanon must also specifically contend with child marriage, sexual violence and a host of new burdens and responsibilities.
There are now at least 1.2 million registered Syrian refugees in tiny Lebanon alone, a country with a pre-war population of only around 4 million (there has not been an official census conducted here for decades.)
The government is loath to authorize official refugee camps – given a strained relationship over the years with some militant elements within Palestinian refugee camps– and so the vast majority of Syrians are now living in cramped and often ad-hoc conditions, with a lack of privacy and space.
Aid is lacking or non-existent – families receive but $13.50 per person a month in food assistance from the World Food Programme, and as work is hard to come by, most Syrian refugees in Lebanon are living in abject poverty.
With so many refugee families living in such dire circumstances, teenage girls can often become an economic burden, explains Lama Naja, who works in gender-based violence (GBV) prevention at ABAAD, a gender equality NGO based in Beirut.
There is a dearth of reliable data on rates of GBV (gender based violence) among Syrian refugees, but as Jihane Latrous, child protection and GBV specialist at UNICEF Lebanon explains, “We know that in any situation of displacement or conflict, GBV increases because the most vulnerable groups, normally women and girls, lose their usual safety nets, protection mechanisms, because they lose their husbands or they are separated from their parents, or they stop going to school.”
Child Marriage as method of managing family burdens
A recent study by Beirut’s University St. Joseph found that 24 per cent of all married Syrian women in Lebanon were wed before the age of 18.
This statistic points to a growing trend amongst the refugees: child marriage as a vehicle for eliminating families’ financial difficulties.
“The marriages that happen in Lebanon are mainly to cover the expenses of the families. For example, instead of paying rent they might force their daughter to marry the landlord. Girls are becoming an economical burden on their families, so they would rather marry her to a person who will cover her life expenses,” Naja explains.
Teenage girls, unlike their brothers, are less likely to “go out to work like teenage boys do, who can generate income.”
And even in cases where girls are working, there is a second major reason why families are pushed to marry their children off: sexual violence.
Calling it an important trigger factor, Latrous says that, “We know that one way families consider to protect their daughters is to marry them off to someone who will take care of them financially but also protect them from any possible harm such as sexual violence.”
“There is a risk for the girl, and the ‘reputation’ of the girl and the ‘honor’ of the family,” Latrous explains, were a girl to be sexually attacked or harassed while out at work, by an employer or colleague.
“We are dealing with some very strong gender norms, and so it’s perceived as more respectable for the family to marry off their daughter and make sure she’s protected by a man, whereas a boy can go and work and provide for the family and be less at risk,” she adds.
Child Marriage on the rise during refugee crisis
Child marriage was already a problem in Syria, with a pre-war rate of 13 per cent of children getting married, according to UNICEF.
But, Latrous is keen to highlight, child marriage was not a national trend, and it is increasingly being resorted to in Lebanon as a “negative coping mechanism.”
“If you go to Damascus, Aleppo or Homs, prior to the crisis, the percentage would be much lower than 13 per cent,” she says.
However in rural areas it was closer to that rate, “because you have different gender norms, [lack of] accessibility to education services etc. So I think you also have to take into account social and cultural specificities between rural and urban settings.”
Today among refugee communities in Lebanon, those who would have once practised child marriage continue to do so, but, Latrous says, “those girls living in Damascus and urban settings were going to school and had access to higher education, employment; now they are also resorting to child marriage as a negative coping mechanism.”
While child marriage in itself is beset with myriad difficulties – child brides are more likely to suffer from domestic violence, experience complications in child birth and live in poverty – in Lebanon, parents are often less scrupulous about whom they marry their daughter off to.
In Syria, Naja says, “Usually you would go and ask about the groom’s parents, you would be more strict about who your daughter would marry.”
However, in Lebanon, she says, desperation leads parents to being less vigilant in this process. “They marry their girls to whomever asks to marry her. The situation in Syria was different.”
This lack of careful scrutiny of suitors can lead to some unfortunate matches, Naja explains, and short-lived marriages.
“The worst part is that these girls who are getting married to older guys, usually they leave them after two or three months. So he leaves her with the baby, so they come back home with an additional burden,” Naja says.
So having married their daughter off in an effort to alleviate financial stresses on the family, often the parents soon have another child to look after.
Child brides isolated after marriage
As so many of these marriages are not officially registered, accurate numbers are hard to gauge, she says, but, Naja elaborates, “We hear a lot of stories, especially in the north, that there’s this sheikh, or religious leader who is like a pimp and he is facilitating the process,” often marrying young girls off to men from the Gulf, who soon leave their pregnant wives, she says.
“The husbands got what they wanted out of them: to have sex,” Naja adds.
Once the wedding is over, many child brides who do stay with the husband find themselves incredibly alone and with little information about what marriage actually entails, Latrous says. They are in the dark.
“We try to talk to these girls, and we realize they have very little information about what marriage actually entails, especially for a child,” she explains.
“All they can see is the white dress and the party but they cannot see beyond that.”
As soon as they are married, Latrous assures, these girls too often become completely isolated from their peers, and in charge of a household.
Overnight, they cease to be children playing with their friends, perhaps going to school: they are immediately separated from their social sphere, their family, and the world they have known.
Due to certain social and cultural gender norms, Latrous explains, girls who are not married yet are not generally allowed to interact with girls who are married. Their parents fear they will learn too much too soon, so often these newlywed children lose their friends upon marriage, which can lead to “increased depression or lack of psycho-social wellbeing.”
“They’ve almost been put into the box of women, and labelled as women, when they are not women yet: they are too young to be attending activities with women or sharing interests with other women, they are still children,” Latrous assures. “But they are no longer recognized by the society as a child.”
Increased health complications for child brides
They are doubly isolated, Latrous says, as child brides are far less likely to access health services. Older women in their first pregnancy will likely attend the minimum number of recommended medical check ups. Latrous explains that “a girl who is very young would maybe go once.”
They become invisible to the system, not only exacerbating feelings of loneliness, but also rendering married girls much more susceptible to potentially fatal health problems, as children are already more likely to experience complications in pregnancy.
“Her body is not fully formed yet, so if she has a child very young she is at risk of developing lifelong consequences such as fistula and other health risks that she will carry for life,” Latrous says. Child pregnancy also affects the health of the fetus too. Mortality rates for both mother and child are very high before the age of 19, Latrous adds.
Child marriage also perpetuates the cycle of poverty and vulnerability, Latrous says, as girls drop out of school when they marry, so are then unable to support their children – such as helping with homework – when they themselves are in school.
“All of these consequences are dramatic, and have a cost: for the individual, for the family and for the society in general,” she says.
Education is vital in combatting child marriage, as “the more the mother is educated, the more she is able to negotiate with her husband, in delaying the age of marriage,” Latrous explains.
In Lebanon, school is often a luxury for Syrian refugees. While the government has put on afternoon shifts in many already over-stretched public schools, reaching some 100,000 refugee children, many more are unable to access education.
A UNICEF study from last year found that 91 percent of Syrian girls aged between 15 and 18 were not in school. And even when the opportunity exists, parents may not be able to afford transportation costs, or would rather their children worked or got married, Latrous says.
“Even if they are enrolled in school, the parents still have to pay for the bus, books, and clothes,” Naja echoes.
But, she adds, education is “the only solution we have.”
Schools at forefront of combatting refugee child marriage
Earlier this year, in July, Malala Yousafzai celebrated her 18th birthday by opening a school for refugee girls in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, on the border with Syria.
“Today on my first day as an adult, on behalf of the world’s children, I demand of leaders we must invest in books instead of bullets,” Malala said at the opening.
The school, funded by the Malala Fund, is being run on the ground by the local Kayany Foundation, which is directed by Nora Jumblatt, the wife of a prominent Druze leader in Lebanon.
At the opening, Jumblatt said: “Desperate and displaced Syrians are increasingly seeing early marriage as a way to secure the social and financial future of their daughters. We need to provide an alternative: Keep young girls in school instead of being pressured into wedlock.”
The school provides education for 100 girls, and holds classes in Arabic, English, math, computer studies and sewing, and will soon also offer cooking classes. All the staff are women also.
Balkies Massalmeh, field assistant at the school, says that the all-female status was a factor that helped convince some parents to send their girls to the Malala school.
“We did a lot of awareness sessions so that the parents then agreed to send the girls here because it is a girls only school,” she says.
“There would be really a huge problem if they saw a man here. They wouldn’t want their girls to study around guys. But they realized finally that education is really important.”
Voices of the future
Salam, 15, and a student at the school, recently travelled to New York with Malala for the premiere of a new film about the Pakistani’s life.
She eventually wants to become a lawyer, and is enjoying her studies at the school, which is bare so as not to look too permanent, but bordered with overflowing pink and purple bougainvillea flowers.
“It’s good for us because we can be comfortable, there is no reason to be shy,” she says of the absence of boys. “If there were boys there would be certain things we wouldn’t want to discuss in class.”
Reem, also 15, wants to be a paediatric doctor one day.
“The school is beautiful. I was studying in another school before, but I much prefer this one. I have lots of best friends and I like that it is only girls. Boys are always naughty and they don’t care as much about school.”
Click on photos for slideshow and photo description. Photos of refugee girls: Laura Aggio Caldon/ UNICEF/ 2015.