early marriage
A Syrian widow living in the Jordanian city of Irbid watches over girls playing in the yard of a school converted into housing units for Syrian refugees.

Credit: Dominique Soguel

ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan (WOMENSENEWS)–Fayrous Abbazid, 34, is a widow who lives in a caravan here with her three teenage daughters.

She said she left Syria after her 15-year-old was stopped at a checkpoint and suggestively asked by a regime soldier if she wanted to “taste freedom,” which she considered a rape threat.

In Zaatari, Jordan‘s largest refugee camp, she’s had to fend off a different kind of advance in the form of insistent marriage proposals. “Jordanians, Syrians and men from the Gulf approach us,” she said. “They tell me: ‘We want your daughters.’ I say, ‘no; they are only 17, 15 and 13. I want them to learn.'”

The brutal conflict in Syria has claimed so many lives in almost three years–at least 130,000 by most counts–that the United Nations no longer keeps a tally.

Almost 2.5 million refugees have fled Syria, more than 10 percent of the Arab nation’s original population, the bulk of them finding shelter in neighboring states such as Jordan.

For many Syrian girls, the harsh conditions of refugee life have worsened the risk of being married off early. While the legal age of marriage here is 18, Jordan’s legal system has a loophole that allows for early marriage. The Sharia courts, which have jurisdiction over matters related to marriage, divorce and inheritance, can approve a union as long as the girl is over 15.

In 2013, 737 marriages involving Syrian girls under the age of 18 were documented by the Sharia courts in Jordan, compared to 42 cases in 2011, when the Syrian crisis began. Since there is no civil marriage in Jordan and Muslim weddings are performed by a recognized sheikh at a Sharia – Islamic law – court, the religious courts database offers the best reference on marriage trends in the country.

The database also shows that as of the first half of 2013, girls made up nearly a quarter – 258 cases – of the 1,090 Syrian female nationals who registered their marriages, more than a two-fold increase compared to 12 percent logged in 2011.

The Sharia court is still analyzing data for the second half of the year, but its figures for December 2013 show that of the 424 Syrian women who registered their marriage that month, nearly a third, or 119, were minors. Boys made up 1.5 percent of the 271 Syrian men who documented their union that same month.

Early Marriage Already Prevalent

Official early marriage statistics for Syria could not be obtained. But a 2001 survey carried out by the Population Reference Bureau found that 11 percent of Syrians married between ages 15 and 19, a figure far lower than the 28 percent found in the Sharia court December 2013 data for Syrian refugees in Jordan.

As aid workers point out, many of the Syrian refugees in Jordan come from rural communities and are not necessarily representative of national dynamics as a whole.

But while early marriage existed in Syria before the crisis–particularly in rural areas and less-educated communities–many Syrian aid workers in Jordan said the problem is growing in the refugee community.

They said that financially distressed families look for ways to alleviate their hardship. Some want to protect daughters from the threat of sexual violence. Others may be searching for ways to mask sexual violence or other sexual experiences that are perceived as dishonorable.

“The issue has increased because of the crisis,” said a Syrian psychologist who works for an international aid organization in Zaatari refugee camp. He asked not to be named because he hadn’t been cleared by his superiors to speak to the press. “Families who have three to four girls want to get rid of the burden of the girls so they marry them early.”

Several foreign aid workers in Jordan, however, challenge any link between early marriage and the refugee crisis. Noting the prevalence of the practice in rural communities of Syria, they say it has simply crossed the border into Jordan.

“It is in the region. It is in the culture. It is not because of the displacement that this has started,” said Ana Belen Arjona, protection officer at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and part of a working group in Jordan that brings the U.N. and other aid organizations together to confront sexual and gender-based violence.

An interagency assessment of the issue–based on a survey of 885 participants drawn from Syrian communities in Jordan–found that 33 percent of male respondents and 44 percent of female respondents considered marriage under the age of 18 as part of “Syria‘s customs and traditions.” Of the assessment’s participants, 51.3 percent of the women and 13 percent of the men were married before the age of 18 (most prior to reaching Jordan).

“We covered 11 governorates and came to the conclusion that child marriage is not happening at a higher rate,” said Blerta Aliko, a UN Women recovery adviser in Amman, the capital city of Jordan. “Early marriage is a huge pre-existing problem.”

A Silver Lining

Aliko and others see the chance to address the crisis as a silver lining in the refugee crisis.

To tackle early marriage in Zaatari refugee camp, Save the Children, a Britain-based organization with field offices in Jordan, is promoting an “honor contract” in the refugee community, binding parents not to let their children marry before age 18.

Gandhi Bakar, who works for Save the Children in Zaatari, said he has collected thousands of signatories from refugees living in the camp with the help of Syrian community leaders. “I can’t be sure if it stopped totally, but it has decreased to a minimum,” said Bakar.

In interviews last autumn, however, Women’s eNews gathered evidence of plenty of early marriage among Syrian refugees. Syrian social workers across Jordan said that vulnerable families are preyed on for their daughters.

They are approached by fellow Syrians, Jordanians, Palestinians and Arab men from the Persian Gulf seeking young brides. Part of the Islamic marriage tradition is a mahr, or dower, a mandatory payment to the bride at the time of marriage by the groom or his family.

This tenet has been considerably relaxed when the wedding joins two young Syrian refugees as the suitors rarely have the means to provide one. But foreign grooms can still bring dowers to cash-strapped families.

“The man from the Gulf comes, marries, rents a home for the girl and her family, spends one or two months and then leaves,” Aisha al-Masri, a psychologist based in Jordan, told Women’s eNews. “I’ve seen more than 50 or 60 such cases.”

While the Sharia court data in Jordan may offer the best guide to marriage trends in the country, it could also easily understate the actual incidence of early marriage. Some parents, for instance, may allow their children to be married early but wait until they are 18 to document the event.

Customary (urfi) marriages–which entail a contract signed by the spouses in front of witnesses but not registered with state authorities–also muddle the picture. Such arrangements can be limited in time, giving religious cover to consenting sex between two parties, but also to prostitution. Since these arrangements are not documented by state authorities, it is difficult to estimate their prevalence.

In the absence of an easily accessible Sharia court and often lacking official documents, many Syrian refugees in Zaatari refugee camp are exchanging vows in front of two witnesses and any sheikh.

Such unions would not be recognized by the Jordanian or Syrian authorities. Setting up a religious court in Zaatari camp to facilitate formal marriage registrations is one of the measures in the pipeline to curb the problem of early marriage and improve documentation.

This story was produced by Women’s eNews‘ three-person multi-media team, led by  Hajer Naili and Touline Habake. This special project, , was funded by a group of private donors and contributors to the Women’s eNews Catapult online campaign.