Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – Aside from the fact that she is a refugee, Amal Osman is in every other way like a typical 14-year-old. She rolls her eyes when asked questions she doesn’t want to answer, speaks in monosyllables and seems permanently embarrassed by the presence of her family.
She opens up just a little when talking about school. “My favourite subject was maths. I was very good at it,” she says, her eyes fixed on the ground. “I miss school, especially my friends. In Syria I would play a lot, but here I am mostly at home helping my mother.”
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On the subject of her imminent marriage to a 28-year-old fellow Syrian, however, she is silent.
“If we were in Syria and things were normal, it is 100 percent impossible that I would accept for her to get married,” insists her father Bassem Osman, half apologetically, half defiantly as Amal looks on, her face inscrutable. “She is too young.”
But they are not in Syria, and things are far from normal.
Along with around 1.5 million other Syrians, the Osmans are refugees in Lebanon, and with the UN-led Syrian Regional Response Plan less than 50 percent funded, Bassem and thousands of others are being forced to make tough choices as they struggle to make ends meet.
With aid reduced across the board, in measures like the World Food Programme’s decision this summer to halve the value of their food vouchers, children are suffering the most.
Many risk death as they and their families attempt the difficult journey to Europe, but many more, whose parents cannot afford the journey, are forced to give up their childhoods completely, by getting a job or being married off.
Bassem receives four World Food Programme (WFP) food cards a month – worth just $13.50 each. Work is scarce, and so with this meagre aid, he must feed himself, his wife and his five children, of which Amal is the oldest.
They fled Ghouta in Syria more two years ago and now live in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in a half-finished structure made from concrete breeze blocks.
“There are many reasons [for Amal to marry],” he explains with a sigh. “A good man presented himself, alhamdilallah [thank God] …, it’s safer for her to be married and therefore protected; and of course, the economic reasons, there are fewer expenses.”
Of the roughly 70,000 Syrian girls aged between 12 and 17 in Lebanon, some six percent are married, according to a study by the Beirut-based Universite St Joseph, although this is likely to be an underestimate due to the prevalence of unregistered marriages. There is no hard data on whether child marriage is rising, but UNICEF has their suspicions.
“It’s all anecdotal information that we have at the moment,” explains Jihane Latrous, UNICEF’s child protection and gender-based violence specialist. “But because its a negative coping mechanism and the living conditions are more difficult every day, we believe that it is increasing.”
I work with two older guys every day, there is no one my age. I'm locked in a room and forced to work. I scrub floors and do construction jobs.
Child marriage overwhelmingly affects girls; for Syrian boys, child labour is the bigger risk, relied on by refugees who are forbidden to work in Lebanon past the age of 16 if they want to claim aid.
For both, the effect is the same: robbing children of their right to an education, their ability to be protected from abuse, and their chance of having a decent job once older.
“I don’t like Lebanon,” says Mohammad Salman with a shrug as he colours in a picture of a garden at his family’s draughty flat in Baalbek, in northeastern Lebanon.
A skinny boy of 12, Mohammad has been working to help support his family ever since they fled Syria two years ago.
“For me, life here is mostly horrible work,” he says, pausing for a second to add some more green to a large tree in his picture.
“I work with two older guys every day, there is no one my age. I’m locked in a room and forced to work. I scrub floors and do construction jobs.”
He went to school briefly when he first arrived in Lebanon, but his parents quickly pulled him out because they couldn’t afford the fees.
He says he no longer remembers how to read and write, although it is coming back slowly thanks to a non-formal education programme he attends before work.
“I want my children to be educated,” his father Ghassan Salman explains softly, a pleading look in his eyes, “but every day I have to pay 25,000 Lebanese pounds [$16] in costs for my family. I make around 10,000 [$6] a day. It’s nothing to feed a family.”
Mohammad brings in between $10 and $13 a week, money his family desperately needs. Two of his younger brothers, eight-year-old Feris and nine-year-old Ahmad also work. The only aid the family gets is five WFP food cards, the money from which is gone within days, Salman says.
I am very sad that my children have to do this, I have had to deprive them of the chance to play, but if they don't work then we can't pay the rent. What can I do?
“Mohammad has been working in construction for nearly three years now,” he continues, a sad look on his face as he strokes the cheeks of his one-year-old daughter, the youngest of his six children.
“His shoulders and hands hurt from the hard work. I am very sad that my children have to do this, I have had to deprive them of the chance to play, but if they don’t work then we can’t pay the rent. What can I do?”
UNICEF hopes that it will be able to answer that question in the coming years, with the new multi-agency regional response plan (RRP) appeal set to focus on the various aspects of child protection, from education assistance to providing livelihoods for caregivers.
“This is the first time people are realising that we cannot continue with general prevention, we need a specific programme that will tackle the issue of child labour and child marriage,” explained Carlos Bohorquez, another child protection specialist at UNICEF.
But, as ever, money remains a problem. “If the RRP was fully funded it would make a big difference,” he admits.
For Mohammad, the sacrifice he has had to make to keep his family afloat is clear: “If there had been no war, I would have been in Syria going to school, staying at friends houses, studying.”
He raises his eyes from his drawing for the first time: “I missed a part of my childhood because of all this, yes.”