Amira* always repeats these same words whenever I visit her. She lives in a tent in a refugee camp, and was in Homs with her husband when the revolution started in Syria. Her husband was an active protestor and was caught and murdered by Syrian soldiers. Afraid, she fled to Lebanon and had to give up everything. It has been eight years since that day and she is now 25 years old. She got married at 13, when her husband was 18 years old.
Although she has not received a formal education, Amira is extremely clever and ambitious.
"If I turn back time to 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have got married so early. I would have liked to go to school and learn, to have a job to support myself and any children I have later on. I feel I’ve aged so fast. My parents decided to marry me off to my neighbour and I became a child raising a child.”
The situation in Lebanon
Lebanon has reached important milestones with regards passing laws that respect human rights and adopting new legislation that contributes to the promotion of equality between women and men.
As a result of COVID-19, the political and economic situation has become very complicated across the country. Members of parliament were unable to hold meetings, and all development of new laws were paused, as the priorities for the government were to maintain food security and reduce the financial crisis.
Given the challenges, child protection and education remain a priority for us. Sawa for Development runs an education programme for girls in the refugee camps, and an English programme for Lebanese and Syrian women. We also provided vocational training for 30 girls who dropped out of school to be able to work from home. Some of the classes include beauty and hairdressing.
As the world experiences its largest and most restrictive lockdown, gender-based violence has been on the rise, with those experiencing it stuck at home. Since quarantine began, more women have been reporting abuse. According to ABAAD – a human rights organisation advocating for gender equality in Lebanon – calls to domestic violence hotlines increased by 110% in March, compared to the previous year. Evidence shows that education is one preventive factor that reduces the likelihood of marriage under 18 years. Dropping out of school is also a common outcome of child marriage, reducing the number of years in education for girls. Low educational attainment is both a cause and effect of child marriage. Therefore strengthening education systems to reduce child marriage in Syrian refugee communities is a must.
As Amira puts it simply to me:
“I will not let my daughter work in the fields. I will not let her be subject to the violence of that life. I want her to be in school.”
Amira’s daughter is now 13 and goes to a non-formal education school inside the camp. She wants to grow up to be a nurse so she can care for her family and community. She is not allowed to get married under 18.
As well as wanting her to complete her studies and go to university, Amira also protects her daughter at the camp. She doesn’t allow her to stay alone for fear of harassment.
Amira and her daughter are determined not to let history repeat itself in another generation.
“I want to be at school, I want to be a nurse. I will not accept getting married young, I will live my life."
*Name changed to protect her identity
Girls Not Brides has some useful resources if you would like to know more about how humanitarian crises and the COVID-19 pandemic put girls and adolescents like Amira and her daughter at increased risk of child marriage. Both documents provide insights and recommendations for responding to the needs of adolescent girls caught up in crisis situations.
In the time it has taken to read this article 39 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 3 seconds
Nawal is a human rights and gender equality activist and environment consultant. She is the Director of Sawa for Development Association, an organisation working on ending child marriage in Lebanon. Established in 2006, the organisation works on community development to raise awareness and end child marriage, and ensure gender equality for women. Since the onset of the Syrian crisis in 2011, which has seen a huge influx of refugees into Lebanon, SAWA has worked on the social issues associated with the crisis, such as child marriage and violence against women.