Syrian sisterhood

Friends help eighth-grade Syrian girl escape arranged marriage to 22-year-old man

“My family forced me to get engaged. I was 12 years old”

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SYRIAN REFUGEE GIRLS IN THE ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP (KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

As the world hears of the violent destruction of Syria on their televisions and radios across the globe, a new voice is emerging from amid the devastation caused by conflict: the murmur of prepubescent girls engaged to be married — girls like Iman (her real is being withheld to help protect her identity).

In accordance with her culture’s custom of child marriage, this eighth grade Syrian student was betrothed to a 22-year-old man, a refugee like herself.

“My family forced me to get engaged. I was 12 years old,” Iman said via translator in an interview with Women in the World. “Even if there wasn’t a war, [my family] would still force me to get married at 12.”

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) categorizes child marriage as a formal or informal union with a person under the age of 18.

In Iman’s home, the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, young girls from 12 to 17 years of age account for 6.9 percent of the 82,000 displaced person population, according to the recent inhabitant information page of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The frequency of weddings within this small percentage of exiled individuals experienced a sharp increase between 2013 and the first quarter of last year, notes the 2014 Early Child Marriage in Jordan report.

Humanitarians like Maaike van Adrichem, a child protection specialist with the UNICEF Jordan country office, are weighing in on the hefty jump. “It’s true,” says van Adrichen. “We do see an increase in early marriage among Syrian refugees. The communities that they’re coming from inside of Syria … are often rural.”

“Early marriage was already considered quite a normal practice, or it was an accepted practice among the Syrians. So, you’re really talking about strongly rooted, deeply rooted, cultural and social norms that are not [able to] change overnight.”

Yet, this wall is being broken down, one girl at a time.

RESISTANCE

Syrian girls like Iman are resisting traditional cultural expectations and shaping a new conversation around the importance of education and empowerment.

Through interviews with girls, the Jordan based report identified “strong links” between education and early marriage. Higher rates of early child marriage occur when a girl is performing poorly or at a marginal level in school: Education is a key reason behind early marriage, especially in the case of girls coming from Syria who might have missed a few years in the classroom.

In Jordan, however, all Syrian children — including girls like Iman — can have access to an education, van Adrichem emphasized. Iman hopes to take advantage of that opportunity. “At first, when I said, ‘I don’t want to get married,’ my family was mad.” But, “I didn’t want to get married. I wanted to go to school,” she explained. Iman’s resolve reflects a conversation slowly taking shape and being heavily influenced by humanitarians, community leaders and female centered friendships, all of which share a core emphasis on education and independence. These values represent a sharp departure from those of Iman’s Syrian community. She noted that her oldest sister is “married and she’s 16 and living in the camps.”

Iman’s friends helped her escape that fate. They reported her upcoming nuptials to a Syrian volunteer and a caseworker facilitated the calling off of her engagement, sparking a new dialogue within her family. Van Adrichem said she thinks this happens on a regular basis.

A girl who comes to attend activities in a child friendly space is able to hear directly from another girl that she’s at risk of getting married. Or, the girl to be married off will mention it within the group of peers with whom she’s engaged in activities, or tell the social worker that her parents are planning for her marriage, van Adrichem said.

These informal encounters are good entry points for case workers and social workers to start the process of talking with the girl and engaging her parents, to raise the idea of postponing a marriage, the Jordan-based humanitarian added. Consequently, girls like Iman are forming relationships with the world outside of their homes and traditional communities.

This experience alone is encouraging young women to aspire to higher goals. Iman, like so many of her peers, wants to be the first person in her family to go to college. And the world owes her its help in realizing this vision.

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