By Melanie Sharpe
ZA’ATARI CAMP, Jordan, 29 October 2013 – Like many Syrian girls displaced from their homes and now living as refugees, Manal* was engaged to be married at the age of 16.
“In Syria, it was common for girls to get married early and here my father said I have to marry. I feel he’s no longer able to support me,” she says.
Manal and her family were forced to flee their home in Daara’a. She arrived in Za’atari refugee camp with her mother Majida* and nine-year-old sister Malak* last December. Her brother and father arrived a few months later.
Majida says she stopped sending her children to school in Syria after 11 of their classmates were killed trying to move a bomb they found in their schoolyard. The violence was unbearable so the family fled to Jordan.
They now live in a small caravan in the sprawling desert camp of more than 100,000 people – a huge change from their four-bedroom house in Daara’a.
After arriving in Za’atari, Manal’s father Thabet* arranged for her to marry a 22-year-old man. Like many fathers, he believes that marriage offers protection for daughters and helps alleviate financial pressures on the family.
“Some people want their daughters to get married because of the cost of living especially if the family is big. Marriage will also ensure my daughter’s future if anything bad happens to me,” he says.
But Manal refused.
Shortly after arriving in Za’atari she enrolled in one of the UNICEF-supported schools. After class she attends a youth centre run by UNICEF and the International Medical Corps (IMC), where youth learn life skills, socialize and receive psychosocial support to help heal the emotional wounds of living through conflict and displacement.
Manal told staff at the youth centre about her engagement. Through therapy sessions and counseling she learned marriage wasn’t her only option.
“They motivated me to take this decision. I was shy before, but when I came here I changed,” she says.
Manal says her goal is to become a teacher or a doctor and says if she married she would have to drop out of school.
“Knowledge is important. We’re in a war situation, it’s not stable now so we need information, that’s why I decided to continue my education,” she says. “I have seen other girls marry and become mothers very early. I want to make the decision slowly.”
With the support of her mother, who herself married at age 15, and staff at the Za’atari youth centre, Manal approached her father and said she wanted to stay in school instead of getting married.
Eventually he agreed and Manal is now finishing her first semester of grade 10.
Even prior to the ongoing conflict, marriage before the age of 18 was not unusual in Syria.
Preliminary findings from a new UNICEF assessment reveals that the prevalence of early marriage for Syrians in Jordan in 2012 was 18 percent as opposed to 15 percent of Syrian marriages within Syria.
The assessment revealed some of the main reasons for under-18 marriages in Za’atari camp. These included reducing economic strain on families, believing entry into neighboring countries is easier for couples as opposed to individuals and that marriage provides protection for girls.
“Child marriage is a very dangerous and harmful practice. Girls who marry younger than 18 are more at risk of health complications associated with early pregnancy as well as domestic violence and dropping out of school. UNICEF is working to ensure girls and boys under 18 are protected by working closely with families, religious leaders and communities to raise awareness, as well as by offering education services,” says UNICEF Deputy Representative Michele Servadei.
UNICEF is supporting the Ministry of Education to ensure Syrian children are enrolled and attending school. Safe spaces in camps and host communities provide structured activities and skills training for youth.
Manal explains that her father supports her decision to stay in school now but still mentions the possibility of her getting married soon.
“Some people say you must get married, others say I am brave. But sometimes when I’m alone I feel scared and ask myself whether my decision is right. But I know I am on the right path.”
*Names changed at the request of the family to protect their identity