ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan—Child marriage among Syrian girls in the Zaatari refugee camp is on the rise. The practice of child marriage is not new among Syrians refugees in Jordan; in fact, it has received extensive attention since the war in Syria began. But a related phenomenon goes largely overlooked: child divorce.
Child marriage is rampant among Syrian refugees in Jordan. A 2014 study showed that nearly one in three of all registered marriages among Syrians in Jordan involved a child. That statistic does not include informal marriages, performed by sheikhs, which can also involve children. But the problem is not just the trauma of early marriage itself. In a society in which divorce is considered shameful and where a girl’s worth is in large part determined by her ability to uphold the family honor by marrying and producing children, the stigma of divorce among young girls is socially debilitating. And divorce is common.
“There’s lots of divorce because she’s a child and she doesn’t understand anything that’s happening,” says Amal Houshan, 42, a mother of four girls, who coaches soccer for young women in the camp. “She doesn’t know how to cook, or make tea, or welcome guests, and her husband might hit her because of it.”
Divorce can mean not only the end of a marriage, but also the end of a girl’s life outside her family home.
“She can’t study. They don’t let her go to school because she’ll be called “a divorcee” and they are worried about her reputation,” says Houshan, of a 13-year-old she knows in the Zaatari refugee camp who recently returned to her family after having been married off to a much older man. “In my family no one gets married early. They’re afraid of divorce because they’ve seen it a lot.”
A young girl’s life and future can be destroyed in a very short a time. In some cases, girls have been married as little as a month, before their husbands divorce them and send them back to their families.
“Our neighbor has been divorced twice and she’s only 14,” says Houshan’s daughter.
“At 14 you don’t know how to fry an egg,” says Sujood, 14.
And child marriage and divorce doesn’t just impact those girls actually subjected to them. On the benches next to the soccer field waiting for practice to start at the Youth for Change center run by Mercy Corps in the Zaatari camp, teenage girls talk about their lives. Conversations once reserved for childhood concerns—friends, school, family, games—now turn quickly to the topic of child marriage. The girls are scared.
“Someone asked for my hand in marriage,” says Majdoleen, 14, “my mother didn’t say anything to my father but she was afraid he would say yes. But he didn’t. He was afraid of divorce. It’s a scary thing. I’m only 14. It’s a big problem because many girls have been hurt by this; many are married to men much older than they are.”
A UNHCR study that looked at female refugee heads of household in Jordan showed that mothers are often against child marriage. Of those 135 mothers surveyed, all 13 who had received marriage proposals for their daughters refused.
Nevertheless, child marriage is on the rise.
After five years of war, families are becoming desperate. “This is a protracted crisis. As it enters its sixth year people have run out of everything. They’ve called their uncle for the 18th time or the 20th time,” says Miraj Pradhan, spokesperson for UNICEF. As a result, “child marriage has definitely increased in the last year and a half to two years.”
“People think they will have less of a financial burden if they marry off their daughters but the opposite is true,” says Houshan, referring to the psychological toll it takes on the child and costs to maintain her when she comes home after a divorce and is now branded with a social stigma. “And marriage has become cheap.” While previously a man would have been required to demonstrate he could amply provide for his bride, these days families are often just happy to have one fewer mouth to feed. Consequently, new husbands spend less on their wives’ upkeep.
Families sometimes cite fear of sexual violence and harassment as a reason for marrying off their daughters. But a consequence of early marriage is sexual violence and trauma resulting from forced sexual activity. There have been reported cases of refugee women and girls being forced to marry men who have sexually assaulted them in order to restore their “honor.” Globally, girls who marry before the age of 18 are more likely to experience domestic violence than those who marry later, according to Save the Children.
Pregnancies in children’s bodies produce a whole other set of complications, beyond the mental health concerns. According to a 2014 Save the Children study, stillbirths and newborn deaths occur much more frequently among girls than among adult women, and girls under 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than adult women. And as a more general matter, girls may lack the ability to talk about family planning methods and sexual practices with their often much older husbands.
In some instances Syrian girls were married off before leaving Syria because men can enter neighboring countries more easily if they are part of a family. In Zaatari, some families married off their daughters to Jordanian husbands because they saw it as a means of getting the sponsorship necessary to allow them to reside outside of the camp.
Child marriage existed in Syria prior to the war, though many Syrians say in that it was nowhere near as common as it has become. A 2013 report says that 13 percent of girls under 18 in Syria were married. Child marriage rates in Syria have also always been higher than in Jordan and occasionally these cultural differences have led to clashes.
“I know of a 14 year old who got married,” says Houshan, “she was excited and got all dressed up. She didn’t know what was happening. Then when she got to the bedroom she fainted from fear. They took her to the hospital. The doctor asked what happened. “She’s a new bride,” he was told. “‘Shame on you!’” The Jordanian doctor responded, “‘she’s a child!’”
The minimum age of marriage in Jordan is 18, however under certain circumstances, Shari’a judges may authorize marriages for children ages 15 to17. While Jordanian law sets out quite stringent conditions for the marriage of minors, the increase in early marriages among Syrian girls and the presence of child marriage in Jordan suggests that the protective rules are not being fully applied. In Syria, the legal age of marriage for girls is 17 (18 for boys), though exceptions can be legally authorized for girls as young as 13.
Penalties for performing unofficial marriages in Jordan have become somewhat stiffer in the last year and a half. Sheikhs caught performing marriage ceremonies outside of the Sharia court system are fined.
The judicial system doesn’t make it easy for women and girls to seek divorce. Under both Syrian and Jordanian law women must give a “valid reason” for seeking divorce, while men do not. If a woman asks for a divorce without giving a reason, she forfeits any right to financial support from her husband. Many girls lack familial support or are otherwise not empowered enough to seek a divorce. And some child marriages among refugees are unregistered, which means the girls do not have access to even the meager legal protections afforded to females seeking divorce from within a registered marriage.
It is likely that the rates of child marriage are higher among Syrian refugees living outside of refugee camps in Jordan—only 20 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan live in camps.
“Child marriage is probably even more common outside the camp because it’s not so easy for outsiders to get in,” Pradhan says, “a con of the camp is you feel like you’re in a cage, but the other side is that cage protects you from certain elements.”
Some of these child marriages are second or third marriages. Houshan says the practice of marrying more than one woman at the same time—up to four is permissible in Islam—has also become more common.
“In Syria they would marry one, for God’s sake,” says Houshan, “here it’s started to be much more common,” to have more than one.
In a refugee camp where opportunities for the future are limited, many adolescent girls see marriage as the only viable destiny for them.
“You see a lot of 16, 17 year old girls who say they want to get married. It’s the environment, especially in a camp, you don’t get that exposure and the Internet is kind of blocked” says Pradhan, referring to the recent unexplained suspension of one of the largest internet providers around the camps. With few educational opportunities and little to do, many girls put all of their hopes for the future on marriage and children. Without the prospect of school and a career to delay them, many see no reason not to marry young.