Editor’s note: The Covid-19 pandemic has shut down many girls’ already limited access to education, especially if they are internally displaced or refugees. In a new “Girls at Risk” series, Al-Fanar Media is focusing on factors that keep girls out of school. Typically, Al-Fanar Media focuses on higher education, but we believe it is also important sometimes to turn our attention to the barriers that prevent the disadvantaged from ever reaching universities. All of the articles in the series can be found here.
Child marriage has increased among internally displaced Syrians and refugees forced to flee the country.
Researchers, nongovernmental organizations and aid officials admit that no one is exactly sure to what extent child marriage has increased among Syrian refugees. Between running from armed conflicts and the coronavirus, it’s hard for aid workers and researchers to get access to refugee camps or families living in host communities. Some parents are ashamed of marrying off their young daughters and don’t report what has happened.
The numbers are even more difficult to obtain for those who are part of the displaced population—numbering 6.1 million—inside Syria.
One of the reasons the child marriage rate is difficult to determine is because many refugees avoid registering marriages because they lack documentation or official residency. In some cases, the marriage of a female minor violates the host country’s laws, so parents or guardians get around the rules by using local sheikhs to conduct unofficial marriages, according to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.
Here is a breakdown by country:
In prewar Syria, the marriage rate for girls under 18 was estimated at 13 percent, and for those under 15 at 3 percent, according to widely cited figures. The rate for those married before age 18 was around 25 percent in some rural areas, a 2008 report from Unicef showed.
Anecdotally, within Syria, Syrians in rural areas and conflict zones say they rarely see any female teenagers who remain unmarried.
“Child marriage has risen by 90 percent after the war, due to migration and poverty, and in order to reduce the number of family members, especially in families with many daughters,” said one Syrian mother in northwest Syria in a report released this year by World Vision. “It is rare to see a girl who is 13 and is not married.” (The report, consisting of 600 interviews with Syrians, is titled “Stolen Future: War and Child Marriage in Northwest Syria.”)
The legal age of marriage is 18 in Jordan with exceptions granted by a judge for those as young as 15. Among the local Jordanian population, the rate of child marriage for girls under 18 is about 10 percent.
Estimates of child marriage among refugees in Jordan vary from around 32 percent to 36 percent. The rate is as high as 50 percent among the 1.2 million refugees the kingdom hosts, some U.N. agencies estimate. An Associated Press report on the 2015 census in Jordan noted that girls between the ages of 13 and 17 made up almost 44 percent of all Syrian women in Jordan getting married that year.
The legal marriage age in Lebanon varies from 14 to 17, according to religious affiliation, although it can go lower with a guardian’s consent.
UNICEF estimated in a 2016 study that 39 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon married before the age of 18. In the Western Bekaa region, 47 percent of all married Syrian women between the ages of 20 and 24 had been child brides, according to a study done by the United Nations Population Fund and partners. The study estimated that 13 percent were under 15.
Comparatively, about 6 percent of Lebanese girls marry under the age of 18.
Turkey is unusual among the countries hosting Syrian refugees because it makes an effort to enforce its legal age of marriage of 18, or 17 with a guardian’s consent. Marriages consisting only of religious ceremonies—common in Lebanon and Jordan—are illegal under the country’s secular laws. Even so, the United Nations estimates that about 26 percent to one-third of Syrian girls marry under the age of 18 in Turkey.
Sometimes, the couple is married in a religious ceremony and then officially registers the marriage once the bride is of age. Turkey requires officials at health centers and schools serving refugees to report child marriages, but still these unions often stay underground, according to UNFPA.
When marriages stay underground, it has negative consequences. Undocumented children have difficulties later in life accessing healthcare and education. The ripple effects of child marriages among displaced and refugee Syrians may go on for generations.