Syrian children are at risk of becoming the “lost generation,” an issue that’s of particular concern among girls who are being forced to wed at staggering rates.
In Lebanon, 6 percent of Syrian refugee girls are getting married before they turn 18, according to a study by the University of St. Joseph in Lebanon. Impoverished parents there often see no choice but to find husbands for their daughters, even though resorting to such measures puts the girls at serious health risks, in addition to denying them education and economic opportunities.
Nour, 13, is one such girl whose parents gave her up because they felt they had no other alternative.
The adolescent’s family fled Syria four years ago, and Nour now lives in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon with her 27-year-old husband whom she married nine months ago, according to UNICEF. The two didn’t meet before the wedding.
“If it wasn't for the war,” Nour’s parents told UNICEF, “we would never have allowed our daughter to get married so young, but now we cannot keep her because of our economic problems.”
Though they've escaped a war zone, families are also without the resources to adequately provide for their children, leading them to make some impossible decisions.
For these struggling families, child marriage may seem like a "quick fix," but the institution comes with long-term risks.
Girls who marry young are more susceptible to intimate partner violence and sexual abuse than those who marry later, according to WHO.
Complications related to pregnancy and childbirth are also a leading cause of death among girls between the ages of 15 and 19.
But for some, though, those are risks worth taking considering the other frightening scenarios they’ve faced.
Samira, 14, was kidnapped by Islamic State militants, but managed to escape to Lebanon with her parents' help, according to UNICEF. She got married a year and a half ago and now lives with her husband and baby son in a tent shelter in the Bekaa Valley.
A major problem is that one of the proven deterrents against child marriage is a rarity in Lebanon.
According to nonprofit Girls Not Brides, girls who pursue secondary schooling are up to six times less likely to marry as children than those who get less education.
But there are about 500,000 Syrian school-age children in Lebanon, and only a fifth of them are enrolled in formal education, Reuters reported.
Amina’s experience exemplifies that point.
The 14-year-old Syrian refugee was married off two years ago against her wishes and now has two boys. Given the choice, she would’ve preferred to continue her studies, she told UNICEF.
The country, however, is working to ramp up its education opportunities for the overwhelming amount of refugees in need.
The education ministry announced last month that a new campaign would provide free education for up to 200,000 Syrian refugee children this year. The “Back to School” campaign has gotten $94 million from international donors and aid groups, according to Reuters.
A number of programs have been working to empower girls to see what their futures can hold beyond marriage, and a number of girls have been successful in fighting back against the pressure to wed.
Waad, 13, who was a student back in Syria, was forced by her father to marry a man she didn’t know about eight months ago. The teen is eager to get a divorce and works in the fields for 6,000 Lebanese pounds a day (about $4) to help support her family.
UNICEF is one such group that’s developing programs to educate leaders about the risks involved in child marriage and embolden girls to stand up for their rights.
The humanitarian organization has been engaging with religious leaders to combat gender-based violence, which includes child marriage, and is also training health workers to identify and treat the specific issues young wives face.
UNICEF also offers psychosocial support to girls who are at risk of marrying young, which is often provided through safe mobile programs. The program helps girls establish a secure network whom they can connect to.
Some girls have been fortunate enough to find that support within their own families.
When Sumayya’s family brought up her getting married, the defiant 14-year-old refused. And her mother decided not to force her.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated that 24 percent of Syrian refugee girls in Lebanon were getting married before the age of 18. That statistic represents the total number of married Syrian refugees in Lebanon who were married before the age of 18. The number of Syrian refugee girls between the age of 12 and 17 present in Lebanon today who are married is 6 percent.