Child marriage – empowering girls to say no!
In the Middle East and North Africa, 17% of girls under 18 get married. Terre des hommes (Tdh) has published a unique piece of research to understand the practice of child marriage by interviewing girls and their families over four years. It gives depth to the current quantitative data available. In our projects in Lebanon and Jordan, we fight alongside girls to have the right to a childhood and to be independent in choosing their future.
“I did not want to, but I could not argue to defend my position in front of my mother and my family,” says 19-year-old Noor who lives in the Emirati Jordanian Camp (EJC). At the age of 16, just before she started visiting Tdh activities, her mother wanted to marry her off to a family relative.
In our research Understanding child marriage amongst Syrian refugee communities in Jordan and Lebanon with lead researcher Dr Aisha Hutchinson from the University of Bedfordshire, focus group discussions among refugee girls of the Emirati Jordanian Camp identified what somebody in her situation might do. Some argued: ‘She will refuse because she’s in school’; others said the opposite: ‘She might agree because of pressures or she would think that the man who asked for hand will improve the financial conditions of her family.’ And some said: ‘If I was in her place, I would think that he will make me happy.’ In Jordan, we found that the average age at which Syrian refugee girls receive their first proposal was 14.5 years. Almost all girls had received at least one proposal by the age of 16.
Many young girls of the Syrian refugee community do not have any knowledge about marriage, sexual relationships, childbearing and the risks associated with it for themselves. Tdh wants to change this: we do life skills and legal awareness sessions in safe spaces where girls can talk freely, become more confident to face tough situations and learn about their rights. With offer them protection and support, so they use their right to say no and choose their own future.
Even though already an estimated 18% of girls were married under the age of 18 in Syria before the conflict, most of the research participants described the challenges of displacement and being a refugee as contributing factors to the rise in child marriage. The parents do not know what life holds for them and marriage gives an illusion of being able to secure a future for their daughters.
With 16, Noor got engaged to her relative and the families started organising the wedding. At the same time, she kept attending Tdh’s sessions. She became more confident and talked to her mother. Step by step, she managed to convince her about the harmful effects of child marriage. Her mother understood. Noor succeeded in postponing the wedding.
The research tries to understand the underpinning social processes through group discussions with children and their families and explores the capacity of faith-based actors to prevent child marriage. Marta Gil, our Access to Justice Regional Coordinator in MENA explains: “The experiences and attitudes described in the research give depth to the current data available and help to hear the voice of the Syrian refugee community more than nine years after the war has forced them to flee. The study examines complex social and family processes, factors and actors that play a crucial role in child marriage, aiming at designing specific and effective programme and policy actions.” By understanding the underpinning social factors, adapting our response and working with relevant local partners, we can make a positive impact on the future of these girls.
Two years later, Noor organised a family meeting to talk about the situation with her fiancé who tried to control her movements in the camp and wanted to forbid her to attend Tdh’s activities and school. “He was so tough and wanted to control my life. I could not accept to be married to such a man,” Noor says. Then, her mother was brave enough to cancel the wedding even though she endured pressure from the family. “I am now referring girls exposed to gender-based violence and child marriage to Tdh’s team. Many parents know my story in the camp, and they trust me. It’s a successful one and they want the same future for their girls”, says Noor, smiling.
*The name and picture have been changed for protection reasons.
©Tdh/Ollivier Girard/Diego Ibarra