ZA’ATARI CAMP, Jordan, 30 October 2013 – Manal* arrived in Za’atari refugee camp with her mother, Majida, and 9-year-old sister, Malak, last December. Her father and brother arrived a few months later. Soon after that, 16-year-old Manal was engaged to be married.
Living in a Jordanian refugee camp with her parents, a young Syrian girl refuses the marriage her father has arranged and instead chooses to stay in school.
Her situation is shared by many Syrian girls living as refugees in neighbouring countries.
“In Syria, it was custom for girls to get married early, and here my father said I have to marry,” Manal says.
Her mother explains that she stopped sending her children to school in their hometown of Daraa after 11 of their classmates were killed by a bomb they found in the schoolyard. No longer able to cope with the escalating violence, the family fled to Jordan.
Their small caravan in this sprawling desert camp of more than 120,000 people was a huge change from their four-bedroom house in Daraa.
Soon after their arrival, Manal’s father, Thabet, arranged for her to marry a 22-year-old man. Thabet says that many fathers believe marriage offers protection for their daughters and takes financial pressures off the family.
“Some people want their daughters to get married because of the cost of living, especially if the family is big,” he says. “Marriage will also ensure my daughter’s future if anything bad happens to me.” But Manal refused.
Making a decision
She had enrolled in a UNICEF-supported school and also attended a youth centre run by UNICEF and the NGO International Medical Corps, where young people can learn life skills, socialize and get psychosocial support to help heal the emotional wounds of living through conflict and displacement.
Manal told staff at the youth centre about her engagement. Through counseling sessions she learned that marriage wasn’t her only option.
“They motivated me to take this decision,” she says. “I was shy before, but when I came here I changed.”
With the support of her mother, who herself married at age 15, and the staff at the youth centre, Manal approached her father and said she wanted to stay in school instead of getting married.
“Knowledge is important. We’re in a war situation, it’s not stable now, so we need information. That’s why I decided to continue my education,” she says. “I have seen other girls marry and become mothers very early. I want to make the decision slowly.”
Eventually her father agreed, and Manal is now finishing her first semester of grade 10.
Manal says her goal is to become a teacher or a doctor. She is certain that if she had married, she would have had to drop out of school.
Even before the outbreak of conflict and the massive displacement of the Syrian population, it was not uncommon for girls under 18 to get married. According to preliminary findings from a new UNICEF assessment, the proportion of married Syrian girls in Jordan stood at 18 per cent in 2012.
The assessment also shed light on possible reasons for the high rate of under-18 marriages in Za’atari camp. Among the prevailing motives were reducing economic strain on families, gaining easier entry into neighboring countries, and providing protection for girls.
“Child marriage is a very dangerous and harmful practice,” says UNICEF Jordan Deputy Representative Michele Servadei. “Girls who marry younger than 18 are more at risk of health complications associated with early pregnancy, as well as of domestic violence and dropping out of school. UNICEF is working to ensure girls and boys under 18 are protected, by working closely with families, religious leaders and communities to raise awareness, as well as by offering education services.”
UNICEF supports the Jordanian Ministry of Education to ensure Syrian children are enrolled and attending school, and provides safe spaces in camps and host communities for structured activities and skills training for youth.
Her engagement now broken off, Manal explains that her father supports her decision to stay in school, but he still mentions the possibility of her getting married soon.
“Some people say you must get married, others say I am brave,” she says. “Sometimes when I’m alone I feel scared and ask myself whether my decision is right. But I know I am on the right path.”
* Some names in this story have been changed
Story by Melanie Sharpe