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Early marriage among Syrian refugees living in Jordan has increased in the past four years. Aid organizations and community volunteers are working to curb the growth. Photo by Larisa Epatko/PBS NewsHour

Meet the Syrian women educating refugee girls about early marriage

AMMAN, Jordan — Aydah Alshraidab knows firsthand how early marriage can hold you back. A Syrian now living in Jordan, Alshraidab’s education was cut short when she got married. After her husband’s abuse became too much to bear, she got a divorce and became a single parent of two.

She fled with her children when the fighting in Syria worsened in 2012. When she arrived in Jordan, “I felt broken and weak,” she said recently through an interpreter. After finding her footing, she became an activist within her refugee community and is now part of a team of volunteers educating women and girls about their rights.

“I advise every girl not to get married at an early age, get a decent degree and live your life, don’t let your feelings lead you and trust no one until you know him very well. Your degree will make you stronger and more mature to decide who to spend your life with,” she said.

Aydah Alshraidab, herself once a child bride, now advises other girls against it. Photo by Larisa Epatko/PBS NewsHour

Aydah Alshraidab, once a child bride, now advises other girls against it. Photo by Larisa Epatko/PBS NewsHour

For many Syrian refugees, their troubles don’t end when they reach a safer destination. With little of their own resources, some refugee families marry off their girls to try to give them more financial security and a chance at a better life. According to Jordanian courts, child brides among Syrians living in Jordan increased from 15 percent in 2014 to 36 percent in 2018.

Cash-strapped refugee families often opt for “negative coping mechanisms,” including child marriage and child labor, said UNICEF’s chief of child protection Maha Homsi, based in Amman. The families also believe that by marrying girls off early, the husbands will become their protectors in a foreign land, she said.

Among some Syrian refugees coming to Jordan was a mindset that by marrying a Jordanian, the girl would gain social status and her family will be able to leave the refugee camp, Homsi said. “And some (parents) don’t feel like there is a future in education.”

At the refugee camps, aid organizations provide an education for children up to the secondary school level, but there is little opportunity for girls to continue their education at universities — unless they can pay for it — or to get employment, she said.

The message should not focus on only child marriage but on gender-based violence as a whole, said community volunteer Hala Shalabalsham (left). Fatima Hilal (right) said in Syria, women barely knew about their rights, so now she is spreading the word. Photo by Larisa Epatko/PBS NewsHour

The message should not focus on only child marriage but on gender-based violence as a whole, said community volunteer Hala Shalabalsham (left). Fatima Hilal (right) said in Syria, women barely knew about their rights, so now she is spreading the word. Photo by Larisa Epatko/PBS NewsHour

Child marriage is a common practice in Syria, said Fatima Hilal, another volunteer who coaches refugee women and girls about their rights through aid organization CARE’s Women Leadership Councils. Some Syrian girls marry as young as 14 and then usually drop out of school to take care of the household.

The practice carries over when Syrian refugees come to Jordan. Although 18 is the legal age to marry in Jordan, the law allows for some exemptions. If refugees do wed at a younger age, they might not register their marriage at the courthouse, which makes it difficult to pursue legal justice if the girls are abused or encounter other problems, said Homsi.

To discourage families from marrying off their girls at a young age, community volunteers like Alshraidab and Hilal will meet at one of the houses of a family where they have identified a need. All the host has to do is provide tea, Alshraidab said.

The activists sing songs to make the meeting feel more informal, and give the families a more realistic portrayal of early marriage, including the downsides. They tell the girls about the financial dependency and that many early marriages end up in divorce, Hilal said.

The activists tell the families about women who did not marry at a young age and pursued an education, and now are “successful and strong,” she said. The message is more authentic coming from local women rather than someone from an aid group, who might not be connected with the community, she added.

The volunteers also provide information about cash assistance and other programs that could help the families.

Sometimes their message works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but at least it gets the community talking, the volunteers said. In Syria, women were not always aware of their rights, said Hilal. Now, she and others like her are the mouthpiece for change.

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