Author: Veronica Lari
According to UNHCR’s latest updates, more than 1 million Syrian refugees live in Lebanon, meaning that it now hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees per capita in the world. The government of Lebanon is consistently refusing to give formal status to informal camps, and on the 6th May 2015 ordered the UNHCR not to register any new Syrian refugees. This decision has threatened the livelihoods, dignity and quality of life of these refugees.
The current situation of refugee women and girls is a particularly pressing concern. According to a report from United Nations bodies, 17% of Syrian refugee households in Lebanon are run by women. These women struggle to meet the high cost of living, as they lack sufficient income to ensure food and shelter for them and their families. Women and girls are at an increased risk of facing a myriad of discriminatory actions, as well as being particularly susceptible to sexual and gender-based violence.
In order to combat some of these risks, Soutien Belge (SB) OverSeas has decided to enhance its efforts in addressing a pervasive and growing threat to young refugee women and girls: early marriage. ‘Early marriage’ refers to individuals entering into a formal marriage contract or an informal union without having reached the legal age of marriage within their host country. Moreover, if we consider that a child cannot freely and consciously express his/her consent to marry, early marriage can be considered as equivalent to forced marriage in all cases.
While this issue also affects the Palestinian and Lebanese populations in the country, early marriage is most prevalent among the Syrian population, increasing from 13% in pre-conflict Syria to 39% in 2016. Indeed, as studies have shown, there is a strong correlation between the Syrian crisis and its consequent displacement of people and the rising rate of early marriage, due to the poor conditions in which Syrian refugees live.
Human rights standards and the Lebanese legal framework
In March of 2017, the Lebanese parliament was presented with a bill which would set the minimum age for marriage to 18 years. The bill was originally prepared by a non-governmental organization called the Lebanese Women’s Democratic Gathering. However, it has yet to be approved in the relevant committees and passed into law.
At present, there is no law in Lebanon that sets the minimum age for marriage in the country. Thus, the age at which individuals are considered eligible for marriage is dictated by their religious communities. This has led to the legal age being as low as 15 for males and 9 for females.
The establishment of a legal framework prohibiting marriage below the age of 18 would enable the Lebanese government to comply with international standards, including:
- the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified in 1991 and considering any human being under the age of 18 as a child;
- the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, ratified by Lebanon in 1997 and stating at its article 16§2 that “the betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage and to make the registration of marriages in an official registry compulsory”.
However, it should be noted that Lebanon has not signed the 1962 UN Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages, with its obligation for States to set a minimum age for marriage.
Main causes of early marriage
The occurrence of early marriage is correlated with several factors, including economic, political and societal dimensions. With specific regard to the situation among Syrian refugees in Lebanon, there are two main identifiable factors that may put individuals at risk of early marriage:
- Poor economic conditions for families: displaced families living as refugees in Lebanon are often unable to meet their basic daily needs due to a lack of financial prospects. Marrying off of children, specifically daughters, can provide financial compensation for struggling families. Food and amenities are often very expensive for refugees, and affordable shelter is typically unsuited to the accommodation of entire families. Ergo, the prospect of reducing the burden by marrying a daughter into another family becomes more appealing. Our colleagues on the ground have observed instances of families arranging contracts for several young daughters at the time to decrease the economic pressure on themselves. The bleak economic situation for these refugees is further compounded by the barriers to obtaining refugee status or a work permit.
- Lack of security: many of the refugee families are headed by female members, and the absence of a male authority figure may increase the risk of early marriage for young women in the family. The lack of male family figures cause some female heads of household to worry for the security and reputations of their young female family members. Marrying off these girls is seen as a way of protecting them from exploitation and sexual/gender based violence. Additionally, the situation is worsened by the fact that the number of women and children comprise approximately 75% of the refugee population in some areas, as our field staff reported.
To these main driving factors, it is essential to add the pressure exerted by the mothers on the young girls. According to our observations, 65% of early marriages are being decided and supported by the brides’ mothers. We also observed that cultural traditions could play a role in legitimising the practice of early marriages.
Moreover, the difficult access to education for Syrian refugees has exacerbated existing vulnerabilities to early marriages. Education provides an opportunity to make girls aware of the risks of early marriage, which can help these girls to delay the marriage until the end of their high school studies. This lack of access to educational opportunities can negatively impact Syrian refugee girls and put them at risk.
Consequences of early marriages
The presence of SB OverSeas in several locations – Beirut, Saida and Arsal – has allowed local employees and volunteers to observe the repercussions of child marriage on refugee girls.
The first consequence that we noticed is married girls dropping out of schools, especially after they become pregnant. Since education is essential for the prevention of this practice, as well as for fostering women’s empowerment, their desertion of schools is of primary importance. Some of them are also reluctant to get married before finishing their studies, expressing during our self-development activities their will to be free to choose their future.
Secondly, early marriages have driven some girls to commit suicide after having faced violence by the husband and his family.
Thirdly, we have been informed of many cases of domestic violence and events within the home, which on some occasions have led to the death of these young women. For instance, one girl from our youth centre in Arsal died the day after her marriage, her body being unable to bear her first sexual intercourse due to her youth. Moreover, young girls face a higher risk of death during pregnancy and child birth compared to women aged between 20 and 24.
Fourthly, early marriages are more likely to end in divorce, with divorcee women often suffering from ostracisation by their families and wider society. Young girls are often unprepared for managing their household duties and the demands of their husbands, leading to unhappy marriages and divorce. Additionally, early marriages can occur because of the desire of men living in the camps to have sexual relations, thus divorcing from their young wives few months after. Moreover, those divorced girls who are able to maintain social links to their families are likely to be married off a second or third time by their families who are looking for further financial compensations.
Last but not least, the majority of early marriages happening between Syrian girls and Lebanese or refugee men are rarely officially registered. When children are born from informal unions, they will not have the possibility to be registered, with the direct consequence of future generations existing in a legal vacuum (without right to health care, education, to a nationality etc.).
SB OverSeas actions
Early marriage represents one of the main challenges SB OverSeas is trying to tackle. To do so, we have implemented a variety of programmes aimed at reducing and preventing the practice of early marriages. More generally defined as empowerment programmes, they are addressed to vulnerable refugee girls between the age of 15 – 18 and women between 19 – 36 years old, with the aim of providing knowledge and resources that can help them increase their decision-making power, independence and control.
We focus on 3 main areas:
- Vocational and specialized training in marketable skills tailored to the needs and wishes of adolescent girls and women to help them increase their self-esteem and promote their economic empowerment (4567 women and adolescent girls have participated since 2014).
- Literacy, numeracy, and art classes to equip adolescent girls and women with basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic, enabling them to be independent and express themselves creatively. We also offer English classes and instruction in citizenship skills to develop their self- respect, assertiveness and solidarity (530 attended our classes since 2014).
- Self-development and awareness sessions to help adolescent girls build decision-making skills and raise their awareness of issues such as early marriage, gender-based violence, adolescence, and human rights (686 girls have been educated since 2014).
Our courses are delivered by trained and qualified teachers, over a period of 6 months. Approximately 10-20 participants attend each two-hour session, which are held three times per week. Our training centres are based near refugee settlement areas in Beirut, Arsal and Saida.
In particular, our Self-Development workshop originated in response to the practice of forced early marriages happening in the camp of Shatila in Beirut and concerning girls as young as 11-13. We believe that, in addition to equipping these young girls with technical skills, it is just as important for them to develop a sense of autonomy and self-confidence to give them greater control over their lives and bodies. Only then can they move from being victims to agents of change in their communities.
Our core subjects include educating young girls about the social, physiological and psychological harms of early-marriage and raising awareness of gender-based violence, including rights and responsibilities. We provide women with a safe space where they can seek help or advice and where they can share their stories of violence and abuse, helping them to re-build their confidence, self-esteem and self-reliance.
To support healing, we also offer psychological services to our beneficiaries by organizing home visits, and by managing individual and family cases. We refer the most serious cases to local, international or specialized institutions. The vocational and psychological services we offer to our beneficiaries are crucial in helping them successfully face the combined challenges of being a breadwinner, caregiver and active community participant.
Although our projects on the ground are essential for the prevention of early marriages through the empowerment of young girls, we consider that European Union (EU) policymakers, and the international community more in general, have the responsibility to support our efforts and collaborate in tackling the practice of early marriages. Within the framework of the Migration Compact and Priorities signed between the EU and the Lebanese authorities, we therefore ask:
- To increase the pressure on the Lebanese Government for the establishment of a legislation setting the minimum age for marriage;
- To push the Lebanese authorities to allow the registration of more Syrians as refugees, making sure a future legislation on marriage would apply to all Syrian women and girls in the country;
- To financially support local and international NGOs that operate on the ground to prevent early marriage as well as work to help young girls acquiring awareness on the issue, independence and control on their lives;
- To tackle the issue of unregistered children with the relevant stakeholders, such as the Lebanese government and the UNHCR;
- To exert pressure on the Lebanese authorities regarding the need to eradicate early marriage in practice.
 UNHCR, UNICEF and WFP, Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, 2016
 Human Right Without Frontiers, “Child, Early, and Forced Marriage & Religion”, 2017
 ABAA and the Arab Institute for Human Rights, Regional seminar on Child Marriage during democratic transition and armed conflicts, p.16, 2015
 Environmental Research and Public Health, Early Marriage and Barriers to Contraception among Syrian Refugee Women in Lebanon: A Qualitative Study, 2017
 ABAA and the Arab Institute for Human Rights, Regional seminar on Child Marriage during democratic transition and armed conflicts, 2015