Syrian Refugees: Forced into Marrying off Their Daughters
By: Anas Zarzar
Published Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Abject poverty and the harsh conditions of the refugee camps are pushing Syrian families who fled the violence in their home country to resort to drastic measures in a bid to save their children.
Damascus – Large numbers of Syrian families are suffering dislocation and dispersal on an unprecedented scale after fleeing areas afflicted by the fighting, which has expanded greatly over the past two months.
It is now not unusual to hear a father, sheltering with some of his relatives in central Damascus, say that other members of his family have gone to Jordan, Lebanon, or even Iraq. Abu-Nizar is hoping to follow the rest of his family to Jordan, where they went a few days ago, joining the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have been into refugees in neighboring states, often living in extremely harsh conditions.
“In the refugee camps you lose your freedom to decide. You become a dependent and must do as the parties concerned tell you after they provide you with the bare minimum needed to live – enough to prevent you from dying, but no more,” he says.
Akram, a long-time Syrian resident of Jordan, says that in the Zaatari camp, which houses some 30,000 Syrian refugees in the desert near the border town of Mafraq, a new social phenomenon has spread that has come to be termed sutra or “cover” marriage, where refugees marry off their daughters, even at a very young age, to the first person who asks for their hand, under the pretext of “covering” their honor. He says he knows of one case in which a 70-year old Jordanian man wed a Syrian child of 12.
Akram concedes that such marriages were not previously unknown among the clans and tribes who inhabit both sides of the Jordanian-Syrian border. But those marriages currently being conducted in the camps are being driven by different factors. “Many of the Syrian families who marry off their daughters to Jordanian relatives or acquaintances think they are doing it for the best. They do it out of concern, or to spare them the experience of the camp.”
Nidal, another Amman-based Syrian and a sociology graduate, explains that when Syrian refugees first began coming into Jordan, many stayed with Jordanian relatives or found their own accommodation. Some rich and even middle-income Jordanians even took out advertisements offering to house refugees for free. But as the numbers grew, and with the Jordanian government demanding money from foreign donors to cope with the influx, the first camp was set up with international funding.
“Cover” marriages started becoming more numerous and exploitative as a direct result of the atrocious living conditions in the camp, according to Nidal. Desperate refugees began looking for any way to extricate their children from impoverishment and misery. At the same time, Jordanian men seeking to marry increasingly took advantage of their dire situation. “Marrying a Syrian refugee girl is cheaper than marrying a Jordanian girl, and in any case is generally seen as a good thing in Jordan,” he explains.
The prestige attached to having a Syrian bride is even greater nowadays, he adds, because “it makes the groom feel like he is somehow a participant in the Syrian revolution, which is very popular in Jordan.”
Nidal says that contrary to some media reports, most of the men concerned are Jordanian and not nationals of other Arab countries.
Web-based activists have begun campaigning to raise awareness of the practice and the exploitation and abuse it involves. A campaigning group called “Refugees and not Captives” has acquired a substantial following on Facebook. In its founding statement, it said that while “cover” marriages are portrayed as a way of protecting the honor of fellow Muslim women, they are motivated by “purely sexual instincts” and amount to sexual exploitation. It also wondered why “the men of honor concerned did not rush to ‘cover’ Somali, Sudanese or Darfuri refugee women.”
One of the campaign’s activists in Amman told Al-Akhbar that in researching the phenomenon, the number of properly registered and recorded marriages found to have taken place in Zaatari camp was fewer the ten. But it was hard to ascertain the real figure as many are known to have been conducted in secret. In one case, the husband tried to sexually exploit the girl he had married, but she managed to run away and was helped to make her way back to the camp and her parents.
The campaigner also said that as serious as the problem is, the media often exaggerate and sensationalize it in pursuit of their own agendas. “We provide information and figures to the media who contact us and whose reporters visit us, but then we are surprised to find that they inflate the numbers and the facts.”
While he would not give details of specific cases to avoid compromising the families concerned, he said “what they all have in common is a combination of desperate poverty and lack of social awareness about the damage this kind of marriage does.”
There have been reports that bureaus have been set up in Libya to provide Syrian brides for would-be Libyan grooms. The head of one such agency was quoted as saying that he charged some 300 Euros for the service, and deemed himself “responsible before God” for the resultant marriage. He forwards requests to a contact in the camp whose wife acts as matchmaker, seeking out suitable young women matching the specifications listed by the applicant.
In response to the media outcry about the matter, some clerics in Jordan and other Arab countries have issued fatwas against such marriages and the quasi-religious justifications that are cited to justify them. But as Syrian writer and journalist Adnan Azrouni remarks, a lot more needs to be done to put an end to it. “There needs to be a huge outcry from inside and outside the camps: No to clerical interference in the issue of female refugees; No to the crisis-merchants; No to making Syrian women victims twice over.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.