“They took my life”

Lebanon and Afghanistan are suffering from a serious economic crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people live in need. Many poor parents see their daughters as a burden they want to get rid of.

In a better world, Hibba would now be sitting at a school desk. Maybe she was scared about the upcoming exam, was chatting with her friends in the playground, and secretly had a crush on a boy. Her life would be as carefree as that of a 17-year-old can be. The daily life of a teenager.

Instead, the young Syrian woman gently cradles her young son in her lap, who is sleeping in her arms. Hibba’s childhood ended at the latest when her parents decided to marry her off to a man. She was then 14 years old and resisted it, without any luck. The baby was born almost a year later. Hibba, then a child himself, suddenly had to take care of a baby.

At least one in five Syrian girls is married

His fate is by no means unique. Experts assume that the number of child brides in Syria and neighboring Lebanon has increased in recent years, especially due to the severe economic crisis. The number is particularly high among Syrian refugees. According to estimates by children’s charity Unicef, one in five Syrian girls aged 15 to 19 living in Lebanon is married. Consequently, it is 4% among Lebanese girls. The number of unreported cases is likely higher.

Girls in wedding dresses demonstrate against child marriage in Lebanon (file photo): The number of child brides in Lebanon and neighboring Syria has increased. (Source: Xinhua/imago images)

The situation is similar in Afghanistan. The number of child brides there was already high before the militant Islamist Taliban took power. According to Unicef, one in four girls under the age of 18 was married, in absolute terms about 3.9 million. Obtaining reliable and up-to-date data from the country is very difficult, explains UNICEF’s Amanda Bissex. Since the change of power in August, however, there have been reports of an increasing number of child brides.

Covid-19 is also doing its part. UNICEF fears there will be 10 million more child marriages globally by the end of this decade due to the pandemic.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians in Lebanon in existential need

The story of young Syrian Hibba is about escape, hardship and despair. In 2013, two years after the outbreak of civil war in their home country, their parents and eight children fled the violence and ended up in a Lebanese refugee camp.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians live in existential need in the tiny Mediterranean Sea country. Dads get by with odd jobs. Either the families depend on humanitarian aid. In the camps, people live side by side in small tents or the simplest structures. Life, a daily struggle for survival.

“Families are relieved when girls marry”

A serious economic crisis from which Lebanon is suffering has further aggravated the situation. UNICEF considers extreme poverty as a reason for the marriage of underage girls. Parents give their young daughters to a man because they see the child as a financial burden from which they want to free themselves.

“Child marriages are like selling girls,” says Maria Assi, director of the Lebanese humanitarian organization Beyond, which works with underage women. Safety is also a concern for parents. In the cramped camps, they are afraid that something will happen to the girls, especially when a single mother has to support a large family. “They are relieved when the girls get married,” says Maria Assi. “Then you are free from all responsibility.”

“I won’t forget that”

Her father was initially against the marriage, but her mother insisted, Hibba says. The young woman with the headscarf looks empty, she wipes the tears from her eyes. Her distress is especially great because her son’s development has been stunted since a serious illness as a baby. She can barely afford the necessary medication. Hibba is angry with his mother. “They took my life,” she said. “I won’t forget it.”

The Syrian Rama, like Hibba still a minor, was forced to marry against her will. She was 14 years old, her husband in his early twenties, she did not know him and did not love him, says the young woman. The marriage quickly turns to hell. Rama says her husband hit her when she was pregnant. After all, at 16, she can divorce. With the child, she returns to her parents: “But I feel like a burden.”

Schools as protection against child marriage

In Afghanistan too, the economic collapse is increasing the number of underage brides. The UN predicts that 97% of Afghans will be living below the poverty line by the middle of the year. But the closure of secondary schools for girls also contributes to this.

In most provinces, the Taliban only allow girls to go to school until the sixth grade. “Schools are a great protection against child marriage,” explains the Unicef ​​Bissex expert. If girls couldn’t go to school and families didn’t see the long-term benefits of education for the family, they looked for other options.

fear of the taliban

In other families, however, it was also fear that drove parents to give their daughters away in marriage at an early age. Farhat, whose real name is different, from the town of Nili in the center of the country, says on the phone that her parents married her 16-year-old sister about five months ago.

When the Taliban took control of their province of Daikundi last summer, there were rumors that the Islamists would give their fighters any unmarried girl over the age of 16 in marriage, he said. “Then my parents accepted my sister’s first game without even thinking about it – without even asking her.”

“She wanted to study”

Farhat says her sister had so many dreams. “She wanted to study and become a designer or director.” The problem of blowing up your dreams and getting married faster does not only exist in your family. Farhat is convinced of this: “Thousands of girls were married immediately after the Taliban took power, and unfortunately the majority of them were minors”.

The young man says he has seen what early marriages can do. The girls are too young to “distinguish right from wrong” and cannot survive in a marriage, he says. He knows 15-year-olds who are divorced. “But in our traditional society, divorced women are shunned.” It would go so far that they would end up becoming prostitutes.

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