As the conflict in Syria swells to a crisis of global proportions, neighboring countries continue to endure its singularly intricate implications. Over the last six years, Jordan has been safe haven to about 1.5 million Syrian refugees. While some reside in camps specially constructed for them, the two-thirds of refugees who fled their homes are displaced inside the country, falling into the category of the so-called ‘urban refugee’ and mingling with urban and rural communities alike.
It goes without saying that the challenges they face here are uniquely daunting, from meeting the cost of living to adjusting to the new reality of their host communities. Women and children, who make up 80% of Jordan’s Syrian refugee population, represent the segment more vulnerable to the risk of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse.
A growing number of international agencies have voiced their concerns over the profusion of cases related to forced marriage in developing contexts. In particular, studies report that child marriage is increasingly alarming within the sub-group of urban refugees. Earlier this month, the Sisterhood Is Global Institute (SIGI) stated that nearly 20 percent of marriages registered in Jordanian courts in 2015 involved brides aged between 15 and 18. In 2015 only, there were 162 marriages involving an underage bride and a groom more than 22 years her senior.
The hope to mitigate the financial burden on the family turns out to be key element driving parents’ decisions to marry their daughters at a young age. The difficulties they experience in integrating into the labor market exacerbate the existing problem, pushing for new narratives to cope with the economic uncertainty. These are most probably the elements that stand at the root of the phenomenon and trigger such deplorable cultural dynamics. Along with them is an important contributing factor: the idea that the marriage would provide girls a much-needed protection against the threats of sexual exploitation and physical harm in high-risk spaces, perpetuate cultural traditions and guarantee housing. Notwithstanding all these reasons, the nature of arranged ‘love contracts’ remains profoundly incompatible with the ideals of personal freedom and self-determination. A woman, regardless of her age and social status, should always be able to define her wishes and her needs, her likes and dislikes, and not a systematic target for abuse and manipulation. To make this happen, families cannot discount their daughters’ desire to choose for their own.
It’s not widely known, but the implications of child marriage and the risks related to it are quite plentiful. Negative psychosocial consequences, social isolation and distress just to name a few. Another aspect pointed out by the report Too young to wed released by Save the Children is that sexual violence is correlated to child marriage, and unwanted sexual relationships with a child under the minimum age are outright violations of her rights.
It’s important to note that early marriage was not uncommon in Syria prior to the crisis, although the practice has recently seen by all means a rapid escalation. To make matters worse in Jordan today, many Syrian marriages – including those involving children – are not legally registered.
Some reports warn that early marriage is both a human rights issue and a public health issue. In fact, it often causes high rates of maternal mortality, together with other complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. This is purely because, being adolescents, young women’s bodies are still growing and developing sexual maturity. Child marriage represents also a barrier to education, as married girls are prone to drop out of school to uphold a list of domestic duties and marital demands, and even more unlikely to go back to schoolfor completing their studies after childbirth.
There is ample evidence that specialized, confidential, and supportive services currently available to Syrian women and children survivors of gender-based violence have been vaguely sufficient, and even when such resources are available, Syrian refugees are often hardly aware they exist. The limited access for many female refugees is due to restrictions on freedom of movement, feelings of insecurity, the inability to participate in economic activities or reach to basic services and the preference for their families’ discrete support over a public exposure of their sufferings. Fears of having to give explanations to male members of their family compound the challenge.
Forcing young women into arranged marriages is an illegal practice that disregards individual consensus altogether. The right to ‘free and full’ consent to a marriage is recognised in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Child marriage is also prohibited by the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, a prominent international agreement establishing the rights of girls and women.
To date, the disturbing findings of statistics and studies have not fed into a more efficient action plan. Recommendations from various NGOs and human rights organizations include: developing social and economic programs for out-of-school girls including non-formal education programs to reduce likelihood of early marriage, promoting empowerment and self-reliance, improving girls’ access to education and retention in school, developing economic opportunities for girls once they have graduated from school in order to provide alternative life paths, encouraging supportive laws and policies.
But despite the reiterated efforts, there’s no sign that the measures taken so far are anywhere near close to solve the dilemma, and early marriage continues to spread among urban refugees. A dramatic change of children refugees’ plot needs to be put in place for, sadly, their dreams of returning to Syria is quite unlikely to come true any time soon. Jordan and the international community should pursue joint efforts and take greater steps to prevent the crisis from making life of the country’s most defenseless residents even worse than a war.