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A different perspective on “child marriages” among Syrian refugees in Jordan

By Marina de Regt

For years, humanitarian organisations in Jordan and Lebanon have been concerned about the increasing number of “child marriages” among Syrian refugees. While early marriages of girls (between 14-18 year) have also been prevalent in certain regions in Syria, and still occur, these marriages are increasing in the context of refuge. In the period between 2011 and 2015 the percentage rose from 18,4 per cent to 34,6 percent, according to the Higher Population Council in Jordan. Studies of international organisations such as Save the Children (2014) and UNICEF (2019) give insight in the causes and consequences of these marriages, and point to the higher health risks for young mothers and their newborn babies, the higher changes of domestic violence and the broader social and psychological problems for early married women. Yet, awareness-raising campaigns to diminish these marriages have not been successful, given the increasing numbers. How do Syrian refugees, and in particular Syrian women, perceive these marriages, and what is the relationship between early marriages and sexual and reproductive health care?

These were the most important questions of our research project that was carried out between 2017-2020, with funding of the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Programme of the Dutch organization WOTRO Science for Global Development. This programme encourages research into SRHR related themes carried out in cooperation with local stakeholders and intends to lead to policy changes. Our team consisted of anthropologists from the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Yarmouk University in Irbid (Jordan), master students from the Anthropology programme of Yarmouk University, employees of two NGOs in Jordan who provide health services to Syrian refugees (Caritas Jordan and Ahel Al-Jabal), and two Syrian women who live as refugees in Jordan, one of whom was married at a young age.

A unique aspect of the research was the use of participatory research methods, which did not only mean that Syrian refugees participated as researchers but also that there were monthly meetings with Syrian women and men to talk about their lives, and in particular their marriages and the relation with sexual and reproductive health issues. These monthly meetings helped create a safe environment so that topics that normally would be considered taboo could be discussed. In addition, these meetings had an important social function as they enlarged the network of the participants and they could meet people outside their own family with whom they could share their problems. Many early married women in the northern part of Jordan, where the research took place, usually lead rather isolated lives and are only in touch with their relatives. The women, and men, were very positive about the group talks. Instead of being told what they should do, which is often the case in awareness raising sessions, they felt that they were really listened to. A total of 25 group talks were held, with married and unmarried women and men. In addition, 124 in-depth interviews were conducted with married and unmarried women and men, and with service providers in the health sector who work with Syrian refugees.

One of the most important conclusions of the research is that the term “early marriage” covers a wide variety of forms, and that the consequences of these marriages are very dependent on the context in which they take place. In general, “child marriages” are automatically seen as forced marriages, and as marriages in which there is a big age gap between the spouses. The stereotypical image of the little girl that still plays with dolls who marries a much older man, who often is already married, sometimes to more than one wife, prevails. In reality there are many different forms, such as cross-cousin marriages, in which the age gap is less big, other forms of marriages in which the husband is also young, marriages in which both bride and groom consent to the marriage, marriages between people of different nationalities, and marriages in which one of the spouses lives elsewhere.

The context in which the marriage takes place is also very important: it is advantageous when family members live closeby so that they can help out in case there are problems between the spouses. Couples, and in particular young women, who live isolated often struggle much more with their situation than those who benefit from the presence of their extended families. The research also showed that many adolescent girls of 15 years and older look forward to marrying. To them it is an important transition into adulthood and they want to set up their own family. However, they are often very badly prepared, which leads to great disappointment about their marriages. Health service providers told the team that the health risks of early marriages are not as high as is presented: pregnancies and deliveries of girls of 15 years and older often go well. The biggest risk is their lack of knowledge about sexual and reproductive health care.

While poverty and economic reasons are often mentioned as the main reasons for early marriages, our findings show the contrary. Poverty prevents people from marrying, and many unmarried men informed us that they were postponing their marriages as they did not have a job. Access to the internet, social media and mobile phones played a big role in the wish to marry, and also in the access to marriage partners. It contributed, however, also to the breakup of marriages and an increasing number of divorces.

In order to disseminate the results of the research among a large audience a website has been made: Lives in Perspective. Five fictive stories based on the interviews and group talks are presented accompanied by drawings made by Syrian artist Diala Brisly, who is currently living in France and who also made the drawing accompanying this Standplaats Wereld post. The aim of the stories is to create more understanding for people in conflict areas and war zones. The intention is to add more stories from other parts in the Middle East and Africa shedding light on topical issues such as early marriages in order to put them in a different perspective. I would like to invite everyone to visit the website and broaden their horizon by diving into the world of women and men living as refugees in Jordan.

Marina de Regt is Assistant Professor at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the VU, and project leader of the research project “Syrian Refugee Youth in Jordan: Early Marriages in Perspective”. She regularly writes blogs, mainly about Yemen and Ethiopia.

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