May 29 2019
A recent study of early marriage among Syrian refugees in south Lebanon has found that around 18 percent of women in those communities are married by the age of 19.
In the sample of 1,625 adolescent girls and 893 adult women surveyed, about 14 percent were married before the age of 18, researchers found.
While the majority of those had married at the age of 16 or above, researchers spoke to some girls who had married as young as 11, and one girl who had been married, divorced and remarried by the age of 15.
The research, led by the Arab Institute for Women (AiW) at the Lebanese American University, was conducted in Nabatieh, Sidon and Tyre as part of a multicountry study looking at the prevalence of early and forced marriage in “fragile and humanitarian contexts” and to evaluate the effectiveness of intervention programs.
The larger project, which includes research in Lebanon, Ethiopia and Kachin State, Myanmar, was launched by the Women’s Refugee Commission in partnership with Johns Hopkins University, International Medical Corps, International Rescue Committee, Kachin Development Group and AiW.
The vast majority of married adolescents surveyed - about 75 percent - had not chosen their own spouses, researchers found.
And after marriage, most of them did not continue their education - 94.8 percent were not in school.
Ghada El Khoury, clinical associate professor in LAU’s School of Pharmacy, who led the research team, called child marriage “a violation of human rights.”
“It’s also a health concern for adolescent girls,” she added.
Early marriage and childbirth can put girls at a higher risk of cervical cancer, for instance, and infants born to adolescents are more likely to be premature and underweight, she said.
Nevertheless, researchers found early marriage to be a deeply ingrained norm.
While the financial hardships of displacement are often thought to contribute to increasing rates of child marriage, they were not the only reasons cited by the women for their marriages, the research found.
Many of them cited respect for family traditions, preserving their families’ honor and religion as the main factors driving them to marry, as well as displacement.
When asked about the ideal age of marriage, more than half of the girls surveyed thought the ideal age of marriage was 17 or younger, and only about 12 percent thought 20-25 was the ideal age.
“Both married and unmarried adolescents thought it is totally fine and it should be legal for girls to be married around age 16,” Khoury said at an event at LAU Tuesday where the researchers presented their findings.
The phenomenon of child marriage among Syrian refugees has been widely studied, but previous studies had not focused on south Lebanon.
The researchers did not conduct a comparative study in the Lebanese population of south Lebanon.
However, a study on the issue of child marriage conducted by UNICEF in 2015 and 2016 found that 6 percent of Lebanese women surveyed, aged 20-24 years, had been married before the age of 18, compared to 12 percent of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, 25 percent of Palestinian-Syrian refugees and 40.5 percent of Syrian refugees.
Lebanese lawmakers have been debating the possibility of instating a minimum marriage age, but so far have not agreed on legislation.
Opponents of the measure argue that legislating a minimum marriage age would infringe on the jurisdiction of religious authorities, who currently regulate matters of marriage and family in the country.
Should the child marriage ban be passed, however, some experts said it was unclear how much impact it would have on the marriage rates in the refugee population.
Khoury pointed out that many of the reasons for early marriage among those surveyed were “very much related to cultural norms.”
Jumanah Zabaneh, a program coordinator with the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women who attended the discussion on the study, pointed out that in some cases, when child marriage bans have been put in place in other countries, families have continued to marry girls off but simply did not register the marriages until they came of age - making them potentially more vulnerable to abuse.
“The solution is always the combination of three things: You need a legal framework with implementation; you need services for the girls ... and the third one is changing the attitudes,” she said.
Farah Salhab, International Rescue Committee programming manager for adolescent girls, said the organization had had success in running life-skills classes for girls who were already married.
“Of course prevention is very important ... but unfortunately sometimes we find girls who are already married, so response is as important as prevention,” she said.
“We can still deliver lifesaving information to girls who are married, such as family planning, the registration of marriages and births. We have witnessed lots of success stories for girls who are already married, who were able to use what they took from the [program] to maintain their well-being and to have healthier relationships,” she added.
The Daily Star