Each year, childhood ends for an estimated 15 million girls around the world who marry before the age of 18, according to the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW). South Asia has the largest concentration of child brides, but early marriage is a global phenomenon.
Girls living in poverty are more susceptible, and by marrying so young, research shows, girls perpetuate the cycle of poverty. UNICEF says they typically drop out of school and as a result, face poor job prospects.
“I couldn’t go to school because of the war,” says Ola, a Syrian refugee who was married at 14 years. “We had to stay at home, the schools closed. I studied only until 6th grade.”
The Syrian war has created a vortex of conditions, such as displacement and poverty as well as fears about the so-called “honour” and safety of girls that have prompted families to marry off their daughters.
I wish I could have finished school. I wanted to be a doctor, I never thought of marriage
“I left Aleppo six years ago,” says Fatima, a Syrian refugee living in a camp in Jordan. “We used to go to the school, then come home. I did my homework, went out with my friends … If the problems stop, I think I will go back. Because of the current problems, it’s all terror and fear.”
From the onset of the Syrian war in 2011 to the present, child marriage has spiked from 15 to 36 percent in the kingdom. European countries, such as Sweden and Germany, that have welcomed large numbers of Syrian refugees are also grappling with a dilemma: permit child marriage or separate families.
Child brides commonly face domestic violence, restricted movement and are often not given a voice when it comes to making decisions in the family. No matter the justifications families give, the ICRW says, child marriage is “a violation of human rights and a form of violence against girls”.
‘I wanted to be a doctor’
Fatima found out she was engaged just shy of her 15th birthday. Her parents notified her that she was to marry another Syrian refugee.
“I wasn’t even 15 years old, I was scared. I cried. First, I told them I didn’t want to [get married]. I am too young. Then, they told me he was a good young man and that they knew him … I was confused: should I agree or not? They used to say, ‘Do as you wish. Do what you like,’ but because he was from a good family, a good hard-working man, I agreed.”
Since fleeing their home in Aleppo six years ago, Fatima and her family have endured fear, hunger and now poverty.
The war forced her to drop out of school when she was 10 years old. She says if her destiny had been different, she would have loved to have been a doctor.
Instead, she is a 16-year-old wife and mother to a five-month-old daughter, with another baby on the way.
“I am pleased with my life. If I am content, it’s no one else’s business,” she says.
But when asked about her daughter, Fatima says she would want her daughter to finish her education and not marry early.
“She should wait until she is 20 or 25. She would carry too much responsibility while she is young. I wish I could have finished school. I wanted to be a doctor, I never thought of marriage.”
‘A woman’s life is a lot better before marriage’
Ola was 13 years old when her parents first broached the topic of marriage with her. After a one-year engagement, she was married at 14.
“You are happy because of the white wedding dress. The girl thinks the man would love her and that she would live a life better than the one she had with her family. He would take her wherever she wanted to go. I thought he would love me more than my family,” Ola recalls her feelings when her parents told her about marriage.
But once married, the relationship deteriorated quickly.
“He didn’t have a job, he relied on his family and I didn’t know that he was dependent on his family. After the marriage, we used to fight because he didn’t work,” Ola says. “They (his family) interfered in our affairs and there were problems … They denied me everything, but they got to go out and do what they liked. I had to do the cooking, washing and cleaning, I lived in the kitchen … It felt like being in a prison. I couldn’t go out.”
She considers herself lucky they couldn’t have children. The 17-year-old has spent the last year and a half navigating the Jordanian court system, trying to get a divorce, but her husband and his family have disappeared and her case has stalled.
Ola says she regrets getting married so early, because she could have finished her education.
“No one should get married that early. You’d avoid a man telling you what to do all the time … It’s better to live one’s life before marriage because one might not get the chance to live it at all after marriage.” she says. “A woman’s life is a lot better before marriage. She is not committed to anything.”