More Syr­ian child brides in Jor­dan amid poverty

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

MAFRAQ, Jor­dan: Mar­ried at 15 and divorced at 16, a Syr­ian teen says she re­grets hav­ing said yes to a hand­some suitor - a stranger who turned into an abu­sive hus­band. Yet the rea­sons that trans­formed her into a child bride have be­come more preva­lent among Syr­i­ans who live in Jor­da­nian ex­ile be­cause of a six-year-old civil war back home. More fam­i­lies marry off daugh­ters to ease the fi­nan­cial bur­den or say mar­riage is the way to pro­tect the “honor” of girls seen as vul­ner­a­ble out­side their home­land.

Fig­ures from Jor­dan’s pop­u­la­tion cen­sus doc­u­ment the long sus­pected in­crease for the first time. In 2015, brides be­tween the ages of 13 and 17 made up al­most 44 per­cent of all Syr­ian fe­males in Jor­dan get­ting mar­ried that year, com­pared to 33 per­cent in 2010. With Syr­i­ans ex­pected to re­main in ex­ile for years, it’s a harm­ful trend for refugees and their over­bur­dened host coun­try, UN and Jor­da­nian of­fi­cials say.

More Syr­ian girls will lose out on ed­u­ca­tion, since most child brides drop out of school. They typ­i­cally marry fel­low Syr­i­ans who are just a few years older, of­ten with­out a steady job - a con­stel­la­tion that helps per­pet­u­ate poverty. And they will likely have more chil­dren than those who marry as adults, driv­ing up Jor­dan’s fer­til­ity rate. “This means we will have more peo­ple, more than the gov­ern­ment of Jor­dan can af­ford,” said Maysoon Al-Zoabi, sec­re­tary gen­eral of Jor­dan’s Higher Pop­u­la­tion Coun­cil.

The fig­ures on early mar­riage were drawn from Jor­dan’s Nov 2015 cen­sus and com­piled in a new study. The cen­sus counted 9.5 mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing in Jor­dan, in­clud­ing 2.9 mil­lion non-Jor­da­ni­ans. Among the for­eign­ers were 1.265 mil­lion Syr­i­ans - or dou­ble the num­ber of refugees

reg­is­tered in the king­dom since the out­break of the Syria con­flict in 2011. The other Syr­i­ans in­clude mi­grant la­bor­ers who came be­fore the war, and those who never reg­is­tered as refugees.

The fig­ures on early mar­riage in­clude all Syr­i­ans in Jor­dan, not just reg­is­tered refugees. Many came from south­ern Syria’s cul­tur­ally con­ser­va­tive coun­try­side, where even be­fore the con­flict girls typ­i­cally mar­ried in their teens. Still, the study shows a higher rate of early mar­riage among Syr­i­ans in ex­ile than in their home­land. The teen di­vorcee fled Syria’s Daraa prov­ince in 2012, along with her par­ents and four sib­lings. The fam­ily even­tu­ally set­tled in a small town in the north­ern Mafraq prov­ince.

The par­ents and the teen, now 17, spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of the stigma of di­vorce. They said they wanted to speak out, nonethe­less, in hopes of help­ing others avoid the same mis­take. Child brides are tra­di­tion­ally shielded from out­siders, and the fam­ily pro­vided a rare glimpse at what drives early mar­riage. “When we came here, our lives were dis­rupted,” said the teen’s mother, sit­ting on a floor cush­ion in the liv­ing room of their small rented home. “If we had re­mained in Syria, I would not have al­lowed her to get mar­ried this young.”

The fam­ily scrapes by on small cash stipends and food vouch­ers from UN aid agen­cies, along with the fa­ther’s be­low-min­i­mum-wage in­come as a la­borer. Worse, the fam­ily feels adrift. The par­ents, fear­ful their chil­dren would be ha­rassed, es­pe­cially the girls, did not en­roll them in lo­cal schools, typ­i­cally over­crowded to ac­com­mo­date large num­bers of Syr­i­ans. In such a set­ting - girls sit­ting at home with­out a seem­ing pur­pose the push to have them get mar­ried be­comes stronger.

An older sis­ter of the teen also mar­ried as a mi­nor. The mother said she of­ten feels re­gret about her daugh­ter hav­ing been robbed of her child­hood. The younger girl spent most of her time at home, brood­ing. She had no girl­friends since she didn’t go to school and was only al­lowed to leave the house with her mother, in line with tra­di­tions. In any case, there was noth­ing to do in the small desert town.

Two years ago, a young Syr­ian man asked for the teen’s hand, af­ter in­tro­duc­tions had been made by a go­b­e­tween. The in­ter­me­di­ary talked up the stranger, say­ing he had job prospects and could af­ford his own apart­ment. The teen, 15 at the time, ac­cepted. “I was bored and sad,” she said. “I wanted to get mar­ried.” The par­ents said the young man seemed im­ma­ture, but that their daugh­ter in­sisted. The wed­ding took place a month later, and the bride wore a white dress.

The mar­riage con­tract was sealed by a Syr­ian lawyer, not a Jor­da­nian re­li­gious court judge, mean­ing it was not of­fi­cially rec­og­nized in Jor­dan. Lo­cal law sets the min­i­mum age of mar­riage for girls at 18, though Jor­da­nian judges of­ten al­low ex­cep­tions for brides be­tween the ages of 15 and 17. In 2015, 11.6 per­cent of Jor­da­nian fe­males who mar­ried that year were mi­nors, com­pared to 9.6 per­cent in 2010, in­di­cat­ing a slight rise that Zoubi be­lieves is caused in part to Jor­da­ni­ans be­ing in­flu­enced by Syr­ian cus­toms.

Af­ter mar­riage, the Syr­ian teen moved to a dif­fer­ent town with her hus­band, and his prom­ises quickly evap­o­rated. The cou­ple moved in with his ex­tended clan, and the teen turned into a maid, ac­cord­ing to her par­ents. The teen said her un­em­ployed hus­band beat her. De­spite the abuse, she said she wanted to stay in the mar­riage, fear­ful of the shame of di­vorce. Her fa­ther even­tu­ally in­sisted on di­vorce to ex­tract her from what he felt was a harm­ful sit­u­a­tion.

Af­ter re­turn­ing home, the teen briefly at­tended an in­for­mal ed­u­ca­tion and chil­dren’s sup­port pro­gram called Makani that is run by the UN child wel­fare agency and other aid groups at cen­ters across Jor­dan. She started mak­ing friends, but stayed away again when a new group of stu­dents signed up. Robert Jenk­ins, the head of UNICEF in Jor­dan, said that by the time girls are mar­ried, it’s of­ten too late to get them back to ed­u­ca­tion. “Our ab­so­lute first line of de­fense is pre­ven­tion (of early mar­riage),” he said, ad­ding that the agency tries to sup­port fam­i­lies and teens so they won’t opt for early mar­riage. — AP

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