Stopping the tragedy of child brides
Investing in girls — 1.1 billion, so more than one-seventh of the world’s population — equals investing in a better world. Young girls will grow up to become mothers, the mainstay of their families, the linchpins of their communities, the driving force of change and progress.
Unfortunately, many girls do not grow up to become wives and mothers. They are forced into marriage and motherhood heartbreakingly early. Around the world, every seven seconds, a girl younger than 15 is married. This is especially true of girls during conflict and humanitarian disasters, not least the Syrian conflict.
According to a report from Save the Children, the international non-governmental organisation, girls suffer the most during national crises and they are disproportionately affected by conflict. Their lives change in dramatic and dangerous ways with families often choosing to marry them off shockingly early in the hope of keeping them safe or pushing the economic burden of feeding them on to someone else.
Save the Children highlighted the story of a 14-year-old Syrian refugee girl in Lebanon, who was married at 13 and is pregnant. It calls the girl “Sahar”, though that is not her real name, and quotes her sad acceptance of life as she lives it: “I am a child raising a child.”
The agonising reality is that Sahar is just one of many children raising children. Misty Buswell, Save the Children’s Regional Advocacy, Media and Communications director for the Middle East, quotes a study in Jordan a couple of years ago. It showed that about one in four Syrian refugee girls between the ages of 15 and 17 was married, double the rate before the start of the conflict.
This affirms figures collated in 2015 by a Lebanese university. That study by St Joseph University said that 23% of female Syrian refugees in Lebanon were child brides. The BBC is now reporting that child marriage is alarmingly on the rise among Syrian refugees in Lebanon and that parents are finding husbands for girls as young as 12.
What can they expect of life and what can be done to help them expect more than is currently on offer? To be a child bride, as Save the Children says, triggers a cycle of disadvantage. The married girl child is denied the right to health, education and vocational opportunities. She is at greater risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. She is more vulnerable to disparate forms of violence.
Ultimately, she is at greater risk of death because complications during pregnancy or childbirth are the second leading cause of mortality among adolescent girls aged 15-19.
There is no argument about the enormous challenges of ending child marriage and the particular problems of getting refugee families to recognise that their young daughters do not have, as Save the Children notes, just two options: to be victims or to be wives.
The case must be robustly — and consistently — made in defence of child refugees. They should be having an education and preparing for their future, not having children.