A growing problem
War in Syria has killed more than 10,000 children. More than 1 million more have fled the country in fear, while millions more remain displaced inside the country. This briefing looks at another disturbing but less publicised impact of the crisis: the increase in the numbers of girls who have been forced to marry.
Child marriage existed in Syria before the crisis – 13% of girls under 18 in Syria were married in 2011. But now, three years into the conflict, official statistics show that among Syrian refugee communities in Jordan – who we focus on in this briefing given the lack of statistics inside Syria itself – child marriage has increased alarmingly, and in some cases has doubled.
In Jordan, the proportion of registered marriages among the Syrian refugee community where the bride was under 18 rose from 12% in 2011 (roughly the same as the figure in pre-war Syria) to 18% in 2012, and as high as 25% by 2013.6 The number of Syrian boys registered as married in 2011 and 2012 in Jordan is far lower, suggesting that girls are, as a matter of course, being married off to older males.
Child marriage has also reportedly increased in camps of Syrian refugees in Erbil, Iraq and among Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Incidences of child marriages and forced marriages among Syrian girls have also been reported in Egypt and in Turkey.
There are a number of reasons why families are opting for child marriage for their daughters. As refugees, Syrian families are reliant on dwindling resources and are lacking economic opportunities. At the same time, they are all too aware of the need to protect their daughters from the threat of sexual violence. Given these pressures, some families consider child marriage to be the best way to protect their female children and ease pressures on the family resources.
Research studies from around the world suggest that child marriage, rather than protecting girls, often has far-reaching negative consequences. It often denies a girl her right to an education and leaves her far less able to take advantage of economic opportunities. As a result, child brides – who are more likely to come from poor families in the first place – are likely to remain poor.
Globally, we know that child marriage also removes girls from family and friends, often leading to social and psychological isolation. This isolation in turn limits girls’ access to sexual and reproductive health.
The consequences can be highly damaging, even fatal. A girl under 15 is five times more likely to die in childbirth than a grown woman.
Girls who marry before 18 are more likely to experience domestic violence than their peers who marry later. The isolation of girls forced to marry makes it harder to access help, including child protection services. Sexual violence is inherent within child marriage: sex with a child under the minimum age for consent and unwanted sexual relationships are gross violations of a child’s rights, regardless of whether they take place within the context of a marriage.
While child marriage has been increasing among Syrian refugees in Jordan, there is also determined resistance within families. A recent report by UNHCR, which looks at the situation of Syrian refugee women who are running households on their own in Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt, revealed mothers’ resolute rejection of child marriage. Thirteen women reported receiving marriage proposals for their underage daughters (out of 135 women interviewed), but all refused. Among the reasons mothers gave were that their daughters were too young and that they wanted their daughters to complete their education. The report adds that women “resented the image being perpetuated of Syrian girls as ‘easy and cheap’.”
This briefing, based on desk research and interviews, does not purport to be a comprehensive analysis of the complex situation of Syrian refugee girls and child marriage in Jordan. Rather, it provides a snapshot of the threats many of these girls face.