“I am convinced that no girl should get married before the age of 18. But when it comes to reality, it is different.”
Rabat – One year ago, “Young 3arouss” (young bride) advertisements appeared on Lebanese Facebook and Instagram accounts. The posts, displaying stock photos of young girls, offered contact information to arrange marriage transactions for the minors.
An initial Lebanese outcry was loud and angry. Then, the Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering (RDFL) revealed that they had designed the fake posts to raise awareness for a real problem.
The activist group not only sparked awareness about child marriage, they also lured customers. Men called the numbers making offers and talking themselves up as potential husbands. The group later published some of these calls online.
“What was scary, is how many men called to inquire about this, and giving the operator a sort of ‘CV’ that they had a house, enough money and come from a ‘good family’ to try and convince the operator to set them up with an underage girl to marry,” wrote one Lebanese blogger.
The campaign, which aims to raise the country’s minimum marriage age to 18, won a Silver Lion for public relations at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in late June.
Most Lebanese say they are against child marriage, but Lebanon has no minimum legal age for marriage. Instead, it relies on religious courts to set the age, which in some cases can be younger than 15. While 6% of women in Lebanon were married as children, a relatively low rate for the MENA region, recent stories of successful and attempted suicides have invigorated a national campaign to protect girls.
Child marriage rates soar for Syrian refugee girls
The growing campaign also relates to the skyrocketing trend of child marriages in Lebanon’s Syrian refugee communities.
“They are marrying early because of al Sutra. We have war. Many women are afraid of being raped, and if a married woman is raped, she is more likely to be forgiven by her husband but if an unmarried woman is raped, it will destroy her life,” one mother in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, where most of the country’s Syrian refugees have settled, told researchers.
When used to talk about marriage, al sutra (covering) means protecting a woman or girl’s honor. Syrian communities living in Lebanon use this concept to preserve what they feel needs protection, by means of marriage.
A striking prevalence
Lebanon hosts the largest per capita population of Syrian refugees in the world. One million people comprise more than one fifth of the country’s population. According to a 2016 study, 39% of women and girls in these communities were child brides.
Most refugees in Lebanon live in informal tented camps or within more established refugee communities. (Lebanon also hosts an estimated 170,000 to 270,000 Palestinian refugees.) Living conditions in the camps are often squalid and dangerous. Family dynamics shift in these settings.
Heightened community violence toward women and girls means that more girls stay home during the day. Syrian teens reported feeling unsafe walking long distances to collect fuel and water, often citing rape as a concern.
Protection and poverty are referenced as two major child marriage drivers in this population. Men and women in these refugee communities see the issue differently, according to a report by NGO Girls Not Brides. Women from the study believed it came from heightened insecurity, while men felt it came from poverty.
A daughter’s marriage can bring the family a bride price, and remove her perceived costs to the family. One data collector, living in a camp, lamented her choice to marry off her 15-year-old daughter: “I am convinced that no girl should get married before the age of 18. But when it comes to reality, it is different.” The girl’s husband was able to support his young wife financially and to help support her family.
Al sutra also comes into play against modern Lebanon’s perceived liberal values. Suspicious of exposure to Lebanon’s less conservative society, refugee parents may “marry them off, thus shielding their morality,” explained another refugee mother in the Marj area.
A pervasive problem
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is home to roughly 40 million child brides. Given a steady decline over the past 25 years, now one in every five women in the region was married as a child.
Tunisia leads the way to eliminating child marriage with a one in 50 rate, while countries ravaged by war and internal conflict, like Yemen, Sudan, and Iraq, require the strongest efforts.
A landscape of war tends to encourage rape (often also used as a weapon of war) and domestic violence. In conflict zones, back-tracking on girls’ empowerment includes early withdrawal from school and a rise in child marriages.
The future is unknown for many Syrian refugee girls. Cooperation with a progressive Lebanese movement may change the trajectory for this young female population, a population with potential in social development, peacebuilding, and breaking the cycle of poverty, if given the opportunity.