Syria-Jordan – In Jordan Camp, Syrian Refugees Choose School Over Child Marriage
Date: January 13, 2023
In Jordan Camp, Syrian Refugees Choose School Over Child Marriage
By Lin Taylor
A decade since the Zaatari camp opened, a growing number of girls are challenging family pressure for them to marry early.
- Early marriage, teenage pregnancy common in Zaatari camp
- Rates of child marriage much higher among Syrian refugees
- More girls are challenging cultural pressure to marry
November 9, 2022 – MAFRAQ, Jordan – Chatting enthusiastically in a classroom at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, a group of Syrian teenage girls share stories about married friends – some with babies already, and of their own lucky escapes.
Fatima was 14 when she got engaged, but had second thoughts and broke it off. Sixteen-year-old Borouj said she had confronted her friend’s older brother when he had tried to marry off his sister.
“Luckily I convinced him to break off the engagement and let her go back to school. So she’s back with me in class,” Borouj said, drawing approving nods from her peers in a girls-only rights education class at the camp near the city of Mafraq.
Syrian girls attend classes inside a youth centre at the Zaatari refugee camp near the border city of Mafraq, Jordan, 18 October 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Lin Taylor
About 35% of Syrian refugee girls living in neighbouring Jordan are married before they turn 18, and child marriage rates have soared there since the start of their country’s decade-old civil war, according to the latest data from the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF.
They are also far higher than in Syria, where the charity Girls Not Brides estimates that about 13% of girls are married before their 18th birthday.
But as refugees, many families marry off their young daughters for financial reasons or to protect the girls from sexual violence in refugee camps, UNICEF says.
“It’s like a protection mechanism for the girls. In order for them not to get involved in relationships and ’cause trouble’,” said Lama Alsaad, a specialist in child protection and gender-based violence who works with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in the sprawling Zaatari camp.
A decade since the camp opened, however, a growing number of Syrian refugee women and girls are challenging societal pressure to marry early, choosing instead to stay in school, aid workers and camp residents said.
“Marriage is a big responsibility,” said Borouj, who like the other girls is not being fully named to protect her identity.
“I see it all around me – women raising their children, taking care of their families and working. You don’t want to be a child raising a child.”
As the number of people on earth reaches 8 billion, the UNFPA has warned of “a worrying roll-back of progress on women’s rights in many countries”, with many women still denied the right to make decisions over their bodies and futures.
“Access to reproductive rights and health services are as vital as food, water, shelter,” Natalia Kanem, executive director of UNFPA, told Context.
“Women who have reproductive choices are more likely to pursue their education, have better job prospects, lift their families out of poverty and increase economic growth for their community as a whole.”
At least 12 million girls worldwide are married each year before they turn 18, according to charity Save The Children.
As well as depriving girls of education and opportunities, child marriage puts them at risk of serious injury or death if they have children before their bodies are ready.
Since UNFPA began its operations in Zaatari in mid-2013, doctors have delivered more than 16,000 babies in the camp – 7% of them born to mothers younger than 18.
Jordanian nurse Ghada Ali Al-Sa’ad, who oversees the camp’s maternity clinic, said discussing sexual health was a cultural taboo and it was common for relatives to decide what a wife will do with her body, especially if she is underage.
“They think it’s the husband’s right to have sex anytime they want. If a girl gets married, she is still a child, and she doesn’t have the confidence to discuss these things,” said Al-Sa’ad, from the Jordan Health Aid Society International.
“We have to raise awareness about early marriage and its consequences,” she said.
Convincing many camp residents to use birth control also remains a challenge in the conservative community, where having a large family is prized, said Al-Sa’ad.
Syrians living in Jordan, which hosts about 677,000 U.N.-registered Syrian refugees, have a fertility rate of 4.7 births per woman, double the global average which stood at 2.3 births in 2021, according to UNFPA.
After nine births – five of which were inside the camp, Rose, 43, said she was desperate not to fall pregnant again and had secretly taken contraceptive pills without her husband knowing.
“We fought for days after he found out I was taking the pill. He was against family planning and wanted a lot of children,” said Rose, who went by a pseudonym. Her husband eventually agreed to let her use an intrauterine device (IUD).
The Zaatari camp lies close to the Syrian border in an area that used to be empty desert. Today, it is a city of huts that is home to more than 82,000 Syrians, nearly half of whom are under age 18.
Despite the persistence of child marriage within the community, some young camp residents are reimagining their futures.
“For me, marriage was about wearing a nice dress and becoming more independent, and maybe I would get to explore other places,” said Fatima, who is now 15.
“But I now realise that it’s not like that – it’s the opposite. It’s a responsibility a girl my age shouldn’t have to bear.”