In Jordan, Ever Younger Syrian Brides
By RANA F. SWEIS SEPT. 13, 2014
MAFRAQ, Jordan — The bride-to-be was so young and shy, she spent her engagement party cloaked in a hooded robe that swallowed her slim figure but could not quite hide the ruffled pink dress her fiancé’s family had rented for her.
As the Syrian women celebrating her coming wedding to an 18-year-old cousin chattered around her in the Zaatari refugee camp, she squirreled herself in a corner, perking up only when a photo or message from a friend popped up on her cellphone. The girl, Rahaf Yousef, is 13.
Speaking wistfully of her days at school, she declared herself throughout the day to be “indifferent” to the marriage she says will keep her from finishing her education. But no one seemed to be listening.
For many Syrians stuck in Jordan’s squalid and sometimes dangerous refugee camps, marrying girls off at younger and younger ages is increasingly being seen as a necessity — a way of easing the financial burden on families with little or no income and allaying fears of rape and sexual harassment in makeshift living spaces where it is harder to enforce the rule of law. As a result, Unicef says, the number of marriages involving girls younger than 18 has ballooned since the war in Syria started.
“The parents feel a man can protect” their daughters, said Ola Tebawi, an official at Jordan Health Aid Society, a nonprofit that provides primary health care for refugees with United Nations support. “These families feel marriage would be the best option for a girl growing up as a refugee.”
But the trend — even among displaced Syrians who live outside the camps — is increasingly worrying international aid groups and women’s advocates who say that the Syrians are simply trading immediate dangers for longer-term ones. They tick off a laundry list of threats for women worldwide that accompany marrying before they are 18.
High on the list, they say, are increased risks of being the victims of domestic violence and an abrupt end to the young women’s education. The aid workers also worry about pregnancies among girls whose age makes them more vulnerable to certain life-threatening complications like eclampsia, which is characterized by seizures.
During the first six months of this year, 32 percent of all registered marriages of Syrian refugees in Jordan involved a girl under the age of 18, according to the Jordanian government. That percentage was up from 25 percent during all of 2013 and, according to Unicef, more than twice as high as the 13 percent of marriages in Syria just before the war that included girls younger than 18.
A majority of the Syrian girls marry into Jordanian families, Unicef reported, ensuring themselves a place in Jordan outside the refugee camps, and a new home country for the long term.
Although the marriage of girls as young as 13 is not unheard-of in parts of the Middle East, including rural Syria, that practice has not been common in areas of Syria or Jordan with higher levels of education. Jordanian law allows marriages for girls and boys 15 to 18 years old, but it requires that a chief justice of a Shariah, or Islamic, court determine that all sides agree to the match.
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In an attempt to ensure the same level of scrutiny for Syrian marriages, the Jordanian government — which has struggled to accommodate more than 600,000 of the more than three million Syrians who have fled their country — has opened a Shariah court in the Zaatari camp. But the minister of social development, Reem Abu Hassan, said that it was difficult for judges to say no to early marriages given the circumstances — and difficult to ensure even that all the marriages were registered.
“We have to be practical and see the challenges the Syrians are facing,” she said.
Human rights advocates say many of the women arrived in Jordan terrified of rape because, as the United Nations has reported, sexual violence had become a “persistent feature of the Syrian war.” And they struggled to adjust to living circumstances in Jordan that were different from peacetime Syria, where men often did the shopping and other chores outside the home to avoid having their women exposed to the public.
Even in urban areas outside the crowded camps, many women who are widowed or without their husbands, who stayed in Syria to fight, report being sexually harassed or living in fear that men will prey on them.
Outour al Khasara, 45, a refugee who lives on a farm near the Zaatari camp, said she saw firsthand that counting on marriage as protection against such threats might be illusory.
She married off her 15-year-old daughter, Jazia al Barhoum, last year to a distant cousin to protect her from “the uncertainty that continues to plague our future.”
Twenty days into the marriage, Jazia said, her husband began to beat her. Jazia quickly left him, but returned at the request of her husband’s family members. “He promised my family he would treat me well,” she said, “but he didn’t change.” Eventually her father decided the marriage should end and went to bring her home.
Sitting on plastic buckets covered with threadbare pillows one recent day, Jazia’s parents expressed regret about their decision to have their daughter marry so young.
Her father, Abu Muhsen al Barhoum, said unemployment, idleness and fear were pushing Syrian refugees to marry too quickly and that he had lost count of the people he knew who had recently married and separated.
Jazia declares herself much happier to be home working in the fields. “You should live your life and then get married,” she said. “I guess this is the lesson my family learned.”
Another teenager, Yasmeen Ritaj, 16, described a similar experience, of initially being wooed, but then being beaten by her new husband. “I imagined it would be paradise,” she said, “but the first time he beat me, I knew there was no future and that this was hell.” A month after the wedding, she became pregnant and then returned to her family after just eight months of marriage, before her daughter was born.
Aid agencies and organizations are alarmed enough by the increase in early marriages that they have been conducting awareness campaigns.
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“You’ll be surprised at the lack of knowledge among the community about the devastating health consequences of early marriage,” said Fasel Shammout, a psychologist who has done training for the refugees. “By the time they reach us, they are in a dire state — legally, mentally, physically.”
Even among those who end up in loving marriages, the risks can be severe. Hana Mohammad, 16, was married in Syria during the war to a young man who professed his love, but whom she would have married later had the fighting not given her few good choices. Her parents, who remained in Syria, thought she would be safer living with his family, which was planning to leave the country, than staying in Dara’a, where so many missiles fell on the wedding day the families held no party.
By the time the husband’s family left Syria, she was eight months pregnant. Soon after they arrived at the Zaatari camp, she collapsed. “She turned blue, she became stiff as stone, she was having seizures and there was blood coming out of her mouth,” said her husband, Mohammad Ghazawi, 26, who said he had known he wanted to marry her since catching glimpses of her in their hometown.
It is unclear whether the arduous 12-day journey through the desert caused her collapse and the coma that followed, but teenage mothers are considered at risk for the condition she eventually learned she had: eclampsia.
In the end, doctors were able to deliver her baby, a girl, safely, but Hana continues to have seizures.
Although she is still a believer in early marriages, her anxious husband and her mother-in-law have begun warning other girls to wait until they are past 18.
“I almost lost my wife,” said Mr. Ghazawi. “She paid the price for being pregnant too early in her life.”
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