Instead of becoming a lawyer, she was married at 15: ‘It deprived me of the life that I had hoped for'

A year and a half ago, Ghalia married her husband in the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in northern Jordan. She was 15; he was 32.

Earlier that summer, her future husband came to the home she shared in the camp with her stepmother, father and five siblings since they left southern Syria in 2013.

He lived near Ghalia in Zaatari camp, and he came to propose marriage. Ghalia found out when she came home from school.

“I panicked,” she tells Syria Direct’s Kholoud Ahmad from the tin caravan she now shares with her husband in Zaatari. At first, Ghalia refused his offer.

What ultimately changed Ghalia’s mind was her hope to “lighten my father’s load.” With five other siblings to care for on a meager shop employee’s salary, Ghalia’s father told her, “I’m trying to give you a better life.”

Ghalia is one of thousands of Syrian refugee girls in Jordan below the age of 18 who have entered early marriages with older men in recent years.

According to Jordan’s Islamic Chief Justice Department, underage marriages made up 35 percent of all Syrian refugee marriages in 2015, up from 18 percent in 2012. Most unions involved older men and girls aged 15-17.

Among Jordanians, roughly 13 percent of all marriages involve minors, the Jordan Times reported in June 2016.

Economic pressures and family concerns about the safety and security of their daughters are driving the increase in early marriages among Syrian refugees, according to a 2014 study by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Now 16 years old, married and out of school, Ghalia’s daily life has narrowed to a blur of housework and marital obligations.

“I dreamed about becoming a lawyer, to defend oppressed people, especially women,” Ghalia tells Syria Direct’s Kholoud Ahmad. “But that dream is over now. I am a wife.”

Q: What happened when your family told you about your engagement? Were you asked for your consent? If so, how did you respond?

I was living in Zaatari camp with my father and his wife because my mother died in the war. My father is responsible for five other children besides myself, with his new wife.

One day, my stepmother told me that a young man had come and proposed marriage to me. I thought she was joking. Then, when I realized she was being serious, I panicked. 

My stepmother asked me what I thought, and I told her: ‘I don’t want to get married now. I want to complete my studies. I have no intention of getting married; it is incomprehensible.’

 “I am a human,” reads a painting by Mohammad Ali Abu Hamza on the back of a prefabricated trailer in Zaatari camp. Photo courtesy of IMC/Zaatari Voices.

Q: How were you convinced to get married? Were you pressured to do so? How did your marriage take place?

I remember coming home from school that day. It was hot, summer. My father was really sick, and I went to put cold compresses on his forehead to take care of him. He took my hand and told me: ‘My little girl has grown up. I’m trying to give you a better life. That is why you must agree to this marriage. Your husband will protect you and give you a better life. You could get lucky and leave the camp, live in better conditions. In the end, a girl has nothing but the house of her husband.’

I was sad when he said that because my marriage was on the verge of becoming a reality.

By saying these things, my father put a huge responsibility on my shoulders. He works in the camp [at a shop selling cleaning supplies] and tries to meet all our needs as best he can. Meanwhile, his wife is demanding and always makes him feel inadequate.

At that time, I thought I could lighten my father’s load by agreeing to the marriage. I might gain a better life and escape my stepmother, who was never pleased.

After I consented, a sheikh drew up the marriage contract in the presence of a few relatives. My marriage was not officially registered. Three months later, we held the wedding party after I had left school for my husband’s caravan [a prefabricated trailer in the camp].

Q: What were you doing before you got married? What were your future plans?

Before the marriage, I went to the UNICEF school in the camp. I was so happy going to school and making new friendships with people my own age who I could talk to. I used to complain to them about what was happening with me. I dreamed about becoming a lawyer, to defend oppressed people, especially women, because I saw many stories like my own. But that dream is over now. I am a wife, responsible for a husband and family life.

Q: Are you content with your life now? Are you happy?

I married at 15, and now I’m 16. If I told you I am satisfied with this marriage, I would be lying. Marriage has burdened me with responsibility beyond my age. My life has become a routine: housework, marital duties, nothing else. I am not satisfied with that.

I hoped for the chance to complete my studies, to be an active woman in society. Marriage freed me from my stepmother, which is a positive thing for me, but it deprived me of the life that I had hoped for.

Also, I feel the age difference between my husband and myself sharply. Even his way of thinking is completely different from my own. Often, he tells me that I think like a child, that I need to grow up and think like an adult.

Q: Did anyone resist this marriage and give you or your family advice? Are there laws to protect you?

My problem is the same as many girls, both in the camp and outside it. Early marriage was around before, especially in our rural society. When a girl is 20 years old, she is thought to have grown old, and her chances for marriage become limited. But after what happened in the war, with the displacement, this practice increased a lot.

At school, my teacher told me that Jordanian law forbids the marriage of minors under 18 years old, criminalizing and punishing it, with certain exceptions. But what is happening is that the marriage is performed religiously, without being registered. They told me that when we return to Syria, the marriage will be formalized with the court.

[Ed.: According to Jordan’s Personal Status Law, the minimum age of marriage is 18 years old. However, officials may allow the marriage of those aged 15 and older, if certain conditions are met. Unofficial marriages such as Ghalia’s are not bound by Jordanian laws. However, sheikhs who perform marriage ceremonies outside the country’s sharia court system are fined if caught.]

Really, my father had the final say because he knows my interest. The truth is that there were some important people and elders who came to my father and advised him not to go through with the marriage, to no avail.

Q: Living in Zaatari, have you heard about awareness campaigns regarding early marriage? Do you think they are useful?

I have heard a lot about awareness campaigns. My friends and some of their family members have attended seminars organized by Save the Children to limit child marriages. The sessions also focused on the negative psychological impact on the girl and her right to live a normal life without being thrust into a disproportionate marriage that is not appropriate for her feelings or age.

Also, when the UNHCR [office] in the camp learns about intended marriages like these, it tries to advise the families and those consenting to the marriage, to convince them of the consequences. But most of those who intend to marry and have consent do not change their minds.

If a man couldn’t marry before due to the cost of marriage and a bride’s dowry [mahr], now there are no demands in matters like this. Now it is enough to provide a caravan in the camp and provide for some basic expenses. The family rushes to marry off their daughters to protect them and place the responsibility on the shoulders of other men. The girl acquiesces to the command of her guardian. She may be an orphan, trying to escape the life of an orphan living with relatives.

Q: Do you regret the marriage now? How are you planning for your future? Do you want children?

Now that everything is said and done, I try to avoid thinking about what happened. I focus on what is coming. My goal now is to find an alternative to studying because my husband will not allow me to finish my schooling. It is difficult to study alone.

For that reason, I have thought about joining one of the educational courses in Zaatari to learn artisanal handicrafts. I am drawn to them, and love them a lot. I could possibly work with handicrafts in the future.

Having children doesn’t mean much to me. I am even afraid of this. I don’t have a mother to stand by my side and teach me how to care for my child. On the contrary, my husband and his family are the ones pressuring me. My mother-in-law takes me to the women’s clinic in camp, looking to speed along the process of pregnancy and find out why it is taking so long. I am not pregnant yet.

[Ed.: Complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the second highest cause of death globally for girls aged 15 to 19 years old, according to the World Health Organization. Infant mortality rates are also higher within the same age group.] 

Q: What can be done, in your opinion, to prevent such marriages?

The focus should be on fighting ignorance and increasing the level of consciousness and thought. Appropriate educational opportunities must be created for girls.

The most important thing is to find an organization to protect the girls who refuse this marriage and improve the living conditions of the refugees.

Kholoud Ahmad

Kholoud studied nursing and translation before leaving Syria in 2013. Her love for reading and writing inspired her to pursue journalism.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.