1 in 7 girls in the global south will marry before the age of 18. That’s 14 million girls a year whose education will be cut short. Whose health will be put at a much higher risk. Who will not realize their full potential because they did not experience a full childhood.
I think about these data points a lot. Girls who are pregnant below the age of 15 are 5 times more likely to die in childbirth or from pregnancy related complications than women in their 20s. Five times. Under 15 years old. Babies having babies and dying because of it. I think about this often. But it’s not enough to linger on globally extrapolated abstractions. The numbers are important, but so are the stories.
Today, while officials meet in the UK to discuss (and theoretically commit to) ending child and forced marriages and female genital mutilation within this generation, let us turn our attention to Syrian refugees scattered throughout Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq. Child marriage is becoming commonplace in refugee camps and it’s reeking havoc on the region’s already vulnerable girls.
[Trigger warning: rape]
In Jordan, 1 out of 3 registered marriages among Syrian refugees between January and March 2014 involved children, and 48 percent of child marriages were between a girl and a man at least 10 years older than her.
Families say that the security situation in refugee camps makes their daughters vulnerable: men and teenage boys openly leer at girls in tents and shacks, there is no privacy, and waves of rape attacks scare families into marrying their daughters off. Single girls are perceived as targets for rape more so than married girls. We, also, cannot ignore the economic situation for refugees that makes child marriage seem like a more reasonable (?) option for desperate families.
Many girls are married to local men, and also men from the Gulf. These men essentially go “shopping” for brides in the refugee camps and offer families a “bride price.” Now, a little religion lesson for those of you less familiar with Islamic law and marriage. Money and gifts exchanged at the time of marriage are traditionally negotiated between the two families and are supposed to serve as financial assurance (and indeed, insurance) for the bride. To give her some financial autonomy and stability in the event of divorce or the husband’s death. However, in these dire situations of child marriage in refugee camps, the money goes to the bride’s family.
Families are financially desperate. They have already been through hell, and their futures are uncertain, unstable, and largely dependent upon social services from the UN and other relief agencies. Add the fear and severe cultural stigma of rape and assault and you have a storm ripe for desperate “solutions.”
In an effort to protect their daughters from rape, refugee families, who love their daughters and are scared, are arranging marriages between their young teenaged daughters and much older men. My thought: Is this not rape in and of itself? Forced marriages between girls who cannot legally or emotionally consent to sexual relationships, and who lack the emotional maturity and skill set to assert themselves within the relationship, to men who are typically much older, are acts of assault. Forced marriage is abuse. Removing girls from school is abuse. Placing them into relationships with an unequal power dynamic is abuse.
As with most things, there are no easy or one-stop-shop solutions. Rape and assault in the camps must be addressed. Security must be a priority for the agencies administering the camps. Girls who are married need to be reached with social services (even more difficult for those who marry local or foreign men and move out of the camps). And finally, the UN should incentivize school attendance for all children, making school attendance just as valuable as a marriage.
For we all know: education (especially for girls) pays dividends and dividends beyond the initial investment. It’s worth it. We need to let our girls learn, and we need to let them be girls.
By Olivia Curl, contributor and #GIRLWITHABOOK cofounder