“When we were coming to Jordan I saw an old man. He was dead. His son was dead too. When we had no water I thought we would be buried in the ground like them. I was so scared”
The young girl from Hama, in central Syria – now eleven – calmly recounts her time in the “desert” – a barren no-mans-land wedged between Syria and Jordan.
“We had nothing to eat for one week, just a little stale bread and rotten tomatoes. My mom gave us a little bit every day. When we had no water I thought we were going to die like the old man,” she explains inside cramped Azraq camp near Amman Jordan – home to over 35,000 Syrian refugees.
For Zeinah, that was the third time in her short life she thought she was going to die. The first time was when men with guns came to her home and took her uncle.
“It was Ramadan. When I heard we could eat I was so happy. Then a lot of men carrying guns came into my house and tried to take my uncle. There were guns everywhere. They pushed me and my mom and tried to take my auntie. Then the men with guns were everywhere in our neighborhood”
Zeinah mother listens attentively, she’s been worried about her daughter since the day they bombed the school.
“We heard bombs near the school, then gunshots. The teachers had to keep the children in the yard they couldn’t bring them home. We had to wait for hours to see our children,” she says looking solemnly at the floor.
The young blue-eyed girl loves watching the powerpuff girls and playing with her dolls. She says she never wants to hear the sound of gunfire again, but for young girls living in Jordan’s burgeoning refugee camps, a new danger lies just ahead.
According to statistics released by Plan International Ireland every two seconds a young girl like Zeinah is forced into child marriage across the globe.
In Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan thousands of young girls are marrying and becoming mothers before they reach their fifteenth birthday.
Young girls dealing with the psychological scars of the Syrian civil war are now struggling to cope with motherhood in crowded refugee camps where cultural norms and economic concerns have resulted in what aid workers are now claiming is an epidemic of child marriages
Colin Lee, is Plan International’s Middle East Program Director, the Drogheda native is working on the ground in Jordan trying to prevent young girls from marrying men up to three times their age.
“The level of debt among Syrian families is massive. It’s lead to a lot of issues, including child marriage and child labor,” he said.
“The trend has been increasing across the region but the economic situation is desperate. If you’ve been there for five or six years the humanitarian assistance is running out. There aren’t a lot of options opened to families. It’s becoming a coping mechanism and it’s dreadful that people have to use it, he explained discussing the charity’s ongoing battle to save Syria’s lost girls
Sara was 15 when she got married. Now the mother of two boys, the 22-year-old could be confused as her sons’ older sister. Sara said family pressure lead to her losing her childhood.
“A friend of my Aunt’s wanted a wife for her son. Originally they were going to marry my older sister to him, but then they chose me. I don’t know why. I was only 15 and he was 22. Everyone kept telling me he was a good man and hard working,” she said in one of Plan’s centre’s for refugees in East Amman.
A 15-year-old eighth grade (second year) student, Sara said she was one of the last girls in her class who planned to go into ninth grade (third year)
“In Syria they want the girls to marry young. Men prefer to take a younger girl so they can raise her and train her up to be what they want. I had to stop going to school. I wanted to finish the 9th grade but my husband said no. He took my mobile phone away. I didn’t have a phone for seven years”
Sara’s anger at her situation is visible as she tears up holding her son who struggles to get out of her arms. Paradoxically, this is the child she desperately wanted after three years of marriage.
“I went to the doctor when I didn’t get pregnant. These are our traditions and I knew this would my life. I knew I had to have a child. My family said I couldn’t continue school, so did my husband. I had to accept this but I didn’t know how hard it would be. When I had my baby and he would cry, I didn’t know what to do. I would cry along with him. I felt hopeless. It was children raising children”
Like Sara, Nour married when she was in the eighth grade. The 21-year-old fled Syria when she was seven months pregnant with her eldest child. The mum of two looks much younger than her age as she shyly giggles while explaining her job as a youth worker in the camp.
“In Syria I didn’t work. Women didn’t work, they just got married and have children, but I like working. Sometimes it is hard but it makes me feel good. I’ve been through a lot, so I can work hard. I walked through the desert for nine hours without food and water when I was pregnant. I thought I was going to die. In many ways I’m just satisfied I’m alive.”
Nour dreams of the day she can leave the camp and have a normal life. “I wish I could have just one opportunity for myself and my family. I didn’t have decisions, I missed my education. I will not let my daughter live the same way,” she said.
In Plan’s brightly colored play facility, Zeinah plays tag with her friends in the yard, oblivious to what the future might soon hold. Her family have been struggling financially since they left Syria and marrying their daughter could mean provide a dowry and in their minds afford their daughter a level of protection from sexual violence spreading through the camps,
“Over 75% of all Syrian refugees are women are children who have lost their main income because of the war. People are under a lot of financial pressure and many see child marriage as a way to protect their daughters as the war continues to disrupt livelihoods and uncertainty reigns,” Ciara Jordan from Plan Ireland explains.
For Sara, marrying at 15 stripped her of her choices and chance for a better future. She loves her children but feels like her youth was stolen from her. As her son cries, she muses on her situation.
“I was a piece of blank white paper, but then I was crumpled and tossed in the bin”
Not since the Second World War has the world faced a greater refugee crisis- there are more people on the move now than ever- but behind these numbers are women, men, and children.
Women and children are 14 times more likely to die in a humanitarian crisis than a man.
Every year, millions of girls across the globe are forced to marry men, sometimes two or three times their age- This has increased dramatically as a result of mass migration worldwide.
We thank Norma Costello for her solidarity.