CHTAURA ‒ A group of Syrian women is on a quest to persuade families not to make the same mistake that shattered their lives. On a summery afternoon, at the  Women Now’s office in the town of Chtaura, Fatima al-Etter and Ghaidaa Doumani read out handwritten names and figures from their notebooks that are added into an Excel sheet. Both of these Syrian women married when they were 15 years old and both saw their underaged daughters married. Now, they fight child marriage tent by tent.

The Excel sheet shows the results of the campaign ‘Let Me Keep My Childhood’ supported by the NGO Women Now and the Ahel Foundation. In the last five months, 45 volunteers in the towns of Chtaura and Majdal Anjar in the Beqaa Valley have reached 2,048 families and 1,826 of them have signed a commitment not to marry their underaged daughters - 176 of these families were planning to marry away their minor daughters but were ‘convinced’ otherwise. 

The rate of child marriage among Syrian refugees in Lebanon is 27% (reaching to 34% in the North governorate), according to UN data. Lebanon has not established a minimum age for marriage since this falls under the jurisdiction of the 18 officially recognized religious communities that regulate marital issues through 15 personal status laws – some religious authorities set the bar as low as nine years old or when the girl “reaches puberty.” Among Lebanese, the child marriage rate is low (6%) compared to the rates among refugee populations; Syrians (40.5%), Palestinian-Syrians (25%) and Palestinians (12%), according to 2009 data.

Slow but steady endeavour 

The battle against child marriage is led by women who have a close experience with the practice. Ghaidaa, originally from Homs province, married her 24-year-old cousin when she was 15 years old and has six children. “My regret is that I didn’t complete my education; when I married, I left school,” she told Syria Direct. Last year, Ghaidaa allowed her 17-year-old daughter to marry, but the union lasted only 11 months because her daughter’s husband obtained refugee resettlement in the US. “My daughter is an 18-year-old divorcee and she got depressed. I joined the campaign because I regret letting my daughter marry so young,” she said.

Fatima opposed marrying her 14-year-old daughter to a 26-year-old relative, but her husband forced the wedding, which led Fatima to divorce him and join the campaign against child marriage. “My daughter faced sexual violence, physical violence, psychological violence, and she entered into depression,” recalled the 45-year-old refugee originally from Homs. Her daughter, now 20 years old, is divorced and has a daughter. Today, Fatima’s youngest daughter is 14 years old and “no way she is getting married,” she told Syria Direct.  

Fatima al-Etter (wearing a purple scarf) and members of the campaign ‘Let me Keep my Childhood’ discuss the details of their next activity at the office of Women Now in Chtaura, 22/07/2020 (Syria Direct)

Fatima coordinates the group in Chtaura and they organize ‘home sessions’ with Syrian as well as Palestinian and Lebanese families at their houses or tents at refugee settlements. The group’s members use their own experiences to highlight the dangers of child marriage. “I had that experience so it makes me more convincing. We expose our children to dangers, they face physical, sexual and psychological violence. We tell them about the high rate of divorces,” Fatima said. 

Because of the social distancing measures related to Covid-19, the meetings have moved online or are done individually. A key element is to convince the father. “The father is the one that takes the decision, we are in a patriarchal society; it has been easier to convince men when they were alone and not with other men,” she explained. 

They invite the ‘convinced’ families to put the campaign logo ‘Together against Child Marriage’ on their house door to show other families their commitment. Ghaidaa, on her way to visit a nearby informal refugee settlement in the Beqaa Valley, tried to convince the tuk tuk driver to put their logo on the vehicle. Upon arriving at the settlement for Syrian widows, she asked the ‘shauish’  (informal guard of the settlement) to allow them to put the logo but he refused with a smile. Sometimes the ‘shauish’ did not allow the members of the campaign to enter a camp, so they had to meet outside. 

Two generations, the same story

Once in the settlement, Ghaidaa enters the prefabricated ‘trailer’ and sits with Nasra Swydan and her 8-year-old son. Nasra, a 42-year old woman from Homs, came to Lebanon in 2014. Her personal struggle has pushed her to be a strong advocate against child marriage.

At 14, Nasra was forced by her family to marry a 25-year-old man. “I didn’t decide, I had no idea of what marriage life meant, I was a child, I was not even a teenager,” she told Syria Direct. She had to take care of her husband and his family. “It is as if you dress up a girl as a grown-up woman, it is a dress bigger than her, I did not understand the needs of my husband, the house.” 

At 18, she gave birth to her first daughter. “I was crying, I didn’t know how to raise her, how to breastfeed her.” In 15 years of marriage, she had four children, then she and her husband divorced and he banned her from seeing them.

Ghaidaa Doumani (left) and Nasra Swydan talk about the campaign to abolish child marriage at a refugee settlement in the Beqaa Valley, 22/07/2020 (Syria Direct)

Later on, Nasra married a second time and had a baby; this time was her choice. “I was 30 years old, I comprehended life, I knew what I wanted from life,” she said. With the outbreak of the Syrian war, her two sons from her first marriage died and her two daughters sought exile with their father in Jordan. In 2014, her second husband was also ‘martyred’. “I was left alone so I became strong and I spoke up, I don’t fear anymore. Here in Lebanon many people are racist against Syrians so you have to become strong.” 

Her first husband still bans her from talking with her two daughters, but Nasra got news that one of her daughters was married at 16 years old in Jordan, had two children and then divorced. She is 20 now. “She and me, we have the same story: What happened to me, happened to my daughter.”

Before Ghaida leaves, Nasra comments on the latest case of child marriage she heard about. A well-off Lebanese man had married a Syrian girl, had a baby and then divorced her and took the 4-month-old baby with him. Fatima explained that although the majority of ‘child marriages’ are among Syrians; some Lebanese men marry underage Syrian girls also. “The Lebanese have more power. Families marry their daughter to men that are already married or are very old so the girl feels like she is sold to that man.”

Nasra Swydan stands at the entrance of the prefabricated home at an informal refugee settlement in the Beqaa Valley, 22/07/2020 (Syria Direct)

In the next caravan over sits 25-year-old Zeinab Hamd with her nine relatives from Idlib city. When she was 13, she became the second wife of a 40-year-old man, had a daughter and divorced. “My dad forced me to marry then because of the economic situation, I didn’t have a choice,” explained Zeinab. Her ex-husband used to beat her. “He used to drink [alcohol], he tried to strangle me, he threatened to burn me; once he put a pillow on the face of my daughter and almost choked her.” Zeinab later married a second time, had a baby boy and then divorced. “I am only 25 but because of what I went through I feel I have lived for a thousand years; I am psychologically tired.” She said her children will not live the life she had to live.  

In Lebanon, several NGOs provide shelter for survivors of gender-based violence. The NGO Abaad has three shelters in Beqaa, Mount Lebanon and North Lebanon with a total capacity of 60 people. Last year they hosted 268 women and so far this year they have hosted 100 women, girls and children, according to Jihane Isseid, Emergency Safe Housing Program Manager at Abaad. Half of them are Syrians and the average stay is three months. “We have cases of child brides escaping a forced marriage,” explained Isseid. At the shelter, they receive help from social workers, psychotherapists, educators and a legal team. If the survivor has children, girls are accepted but only boys under 11 years old can stay with their mothers due to “legal, social and religious considerations,” said Isseid. For Fatima, shelters that do not accept the kids are a problem. “The women prefer to be beaten up and humiliated rather than leave their children behind,” she said.

Changing minds

Stories of abuse after a child marriage are common but some families justify marrying “early” because of economic pressure, religion or social norms. Ghaidaa and Fatima have learned how to counterargue each of them.

Some families tell Fatima that they need to marry one of their daughters because they cannot maintain all their children. “If you marry your daughter and she faces violence and then comes back home pregnant, it will be a greater burden than before,” she tells them, trying instead to convince them to enroll their daughters in a skill education program to learn a craft to help alleviate the economic pressure. 

Ghaidaa explains to the families the health-related issues that their daughters will face if they get pregnant when their body is not ready, from miscarriages to death at giving birth. “I know many examples where girls had to get their uterus removed because of the damage caused, they can’t bear the pregnancy, so men leave them for other women that can have kids,” she said. 

A big obstacle is the perception that ‘early marriage’ is a tradition and is grounded in religion. The campaign’s members have met with representatives of different faiths and convinced some to record videos against child marriage that they can show to the families. “Most of the fathers get convinced by sheikhs [religious leaders], that is why we contacted the religious men so they would talk to the fathers,” explained Fatima. 

International law denounces child marriage as a grave violation of children’s rights and the elimination of child marriage is one of the Sustainable Development Goals set for 2030. A draft law to abolish child marriage was presented to the Lebanese parliament in 2017 but has not yet been approved. “Lebanon is a very confessional country, it is a very controversial topic, and it is not a high priority of the members of the parliament, especially in the current economic crisis,” said Isseid. 

The youngest members of the campaign, from left to right: 20-year old Azhar Mousa, 21-year-old Aya Rajjoub and 15-year-old Mariam Rahmoun, with the logo of the campaign at the office of Women Now in Chtaura, 22/07/2020 (Syria Direct)

But Syrian women are not waiting for a law to be passed. There is much at stake for the younger generation. Aya Rajjoub, a 21-year-old from Homs has joined the campaign. “We want to live our childhood, we want to live all the stages of our life,” she said. She gets exasperated when some families insist on marrying their minor daughters. “I feel like they do not even care, they insist on destroying themselves and their daughters.” She has many friends that married and later regretted it. “Regrets do not help, the time doesn’t come back, the days are gone, and they will eventually get divorced or be trapped in a violent marriage.” 

Aya came to the office of Women Now to finalize the details of the closing ceremony of the first phase of the campaign. Sitting next to her, Mariam Rahmoun, a 15-year-old Syrian refugee that came with her mother and siblings to Lebanon in 2013. Her brother was married at 16 and her sister at 13. Because of the experience with these early marriages “my mum now rejects child marriage,” she said. 

 

This report is part of Syria Direct’s project promoting gender equality, supported by the Canadian Embassy to Jordan's Canada Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI).