LONDON (AlertNet) – The desperate plight of refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war is forcing some parents to marry off their daughters as child brides, aid workers warn.
In some cases, landlords in Jordan were exploiting the situation by offering to waive a family’s rent in exchange for marrying their daughter, said Refugees International.
There are also reports of men from Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries looking for young Syrian brides among refugee communities.
Aid workers believe some of the marriages are temporary, so-called pleasure marriages – short-term arrangements for money.
More than a million refugees have fled Syria during two years of fighting. Most have gone to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.
“Refugees International is extraordinarily concerned about this. The consequences of child marriage are numerous and take a humungous toll on girls,” said Marcy Hersh, an advocate for women and children’s rights at Refugees International.
Many families have fled Syria with little or no money and are struggling to pay for rent and food. Marrying off a daughter means one less mouth to feed while a dowry payment can ease financial difficulties.
Another reason parents are keen to marry off their daughters is to protect them from the risk of rape in overcrowded camps, shelters and other accommodation, said Hersh, who visited Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey and Iraq last year.
The vast majority of refugees are women and children. Most of those in Lebanon and Jordan are living in private accommodation. Aid agencies reported last week that refugees in Jordan were falling into massive debt as rents soared.
Hersh said some landlords in Jordan were taking advantage of their plight.
“For example the landlord would say, ‘I know you can’t pay rent this month but we can make a deal where if you give me your daughter in marriage, then you won’t have to pay rent this month'. These sorts of impossible situations are coming up for families,” Hersh said.
In many cases, escalating levels of sexual violence have driven women to flee Syria with their children.
Hersh said girls and women who had been raped during the war were also being forced into marriage, in an attempt to preserve family honour.
A report by aid agency MercyCorps on refugees in Jordan said U.N. and Jordanian relief agencies estimated some 500 underage Syrians were wed last year.
The study, which focused on refugees in the northern town of Mafraq, said refugees and aid officials reported seeing increasing numbers of Arab men and matchmakers making their way to refugee camps, some of them posing as aid workers.
“Marriages occur, many of which are brokered and not consensual. The results include increasing numbers of child brides and marriages that, in some cases, end in abandonment or forced prostitution,” it added.
The legal minimum age for marriage in Jordan is 18. In Syria, it is 16, but marriages from the age of 13 can be authorised. Some 3 percent of girls are married by the age of 15, according to U.N. figures.
Erica Hall, a child rights policy adviser at aid agency World Vision, warned more children would likely be forced into marriage as the humanitarian crisis deteriorated.
“It’s an issue we are starting to see … anecdotally more and more,” she said. “It is linked to levels of poverty and deprivation, so obviously as the situation gets more and more dire for refugees in Lebanon and Jordan I think there is a huge concern that it’s going to increase.”
Hall told the story of a woman called Amira who had fled to Lebanon and feared marrying off her 12-year-old daughter Sheereen was the only option left for her family’s survival.
Amira, who was heavily pregnant with four other children to feed, had no means of paying the $100 rent for her one room.
“Sheereen would be our survival,” she told World Vision staff.
Early marriages have a serious impact on girls’ health and wellbeing. Girls who marry young have their education cut short and are more likely to suffer domestic violence.
They are also at greater risk of debilitating injuries or death during childbirth because their bodies have not fully developed. The risks are exacerbated in a refugee crisis when the girl is often undernourished and healthcare is poor.
Hall stressed that refugees marrying off underage daughters were not bad parents, but that they simply felt there was no alternative.
“These aren’t children that they don’t care for. They do love their children and they are really trying to do what is best for them,” she said.
The increased risk of child marriage during humanitarian crises was highlighted in a World Vision report last month called Untying the Knot. The phenomenon was seen in the 2011 East Africa hunger crisis and after the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
But Hall said child marriage “often flies under the radar” during emergencies because it is not caught in assessments and people move about making it difficult to judge how much it happens.