child marriage
Child marriage
 among Syrian refugees in Jordan have more than doubled since the start of the conflict, said the NGO Save the Children. This spike in numbers is attributed primarily to poverty and fear of sexual violence among refugee girls and their families.

Child marriage is defined by UNICEF as “a formal marriage or informal union before the age of 18.” The pre-war figure for such marriages in Syria held consistently at 13 percent. But, UNICEF’s newly released data shows that the rate has thus far increased to 32 percent in 2014.

The U.N. warns of the risks and detriments associated with child marriage. The massive increase is likely to leave health, education and financial prospects in a vulnerable state. Girls who marry at such a young age often face complications during pregnancy and an increased risk of abuse.

Another consideration is that girls fleeing the war in Syria are already at an elevated risk of mental health issues based on traumatic experiences and isolation. A forced marriage on top of this could be damaging physically, sexually and mentally.

These girls are also forced to forgo valuable years of education, leaving them in a persistent state of poverty.

Save the Children helps run community awareness programs for families in Jordan, with the primary focus on preventing child marriage. The organization’s study pinpoints several factors responsible for the jump in child marriage numbers.

As refugees, many Syrian families are bereft of economic assets. They consider child marriage to be the lesser evil when faced with the alternative of poverty for the whole family. Marrying a daughter off means one fewer mouth to feed. Child marriage also has the potential to offer protection for a young girl. If she has a husband, she is far less likely to be sexually harassed or abused by others. A child marriage may even be performed as an escape for girls living in abusive home environments.

Yet, in nearly all cases, these marriages are based on social and familial pressure rather than personal choice.

The war itself has been especially influential in skyrocketing child marriage numbers. The conflict has forced many Syrian children to drop out of schools. Also, many children who are not performing well in classes are removed from school by parents seeking to save money. Once a girl is out of school and in the home, she is much more likely to receive marriage proposals.

The law in Jordan dictates that the minimum age for marriage is 18. But, in many cases, people find loopholes or secure special conditions. UNICEF seeks to uphold the minimum legal age for both genders. The organization works with several partners — including sister U.N. agencies, international NGOs and local leaders — to help prevent child marriage.

But, it also offers support to girls who have already been married off.

For girls at risk of child marriage, UNICEF offers job training, psychological support and life skills programs that can empower them and steer them toward a more beneficial path.

– Mari LeGagnoux

Sources: Al Arabiya, Save the Children, The Guardian, UNICEF
Photo: The Guardian