Girl sitting in a classroom and smiling.

The science against early marriage

Lebanese researchers work to prevent child marriages in Syrian refugee communities.
February 03, 2020

We hope to strengthen their autonomy and their attachment to school — and protect them from starting a family life too early.

- SAWSAN ABDELRAHIM, RESEARCHER AT THE AMERICAN UNIVERSITY OF BEIRUT AND CO-LEAD FOR THE AMENAH PROJECT
 

Child marriages are on the rise in Syrian refugee communities in Lebanon. Committed researchers are testing a strategy to counter this practice.

Merida was a teenager who liked to run with her hair whipping in the wind, climb cliffs, and practise archery. But traditions were rigid in the medieval Scottish Highlands, and the time had come for Merida to marry one of the neighbouring lords’ sons. Her mother, the domineering Queen Elinor, had every intention of carrying on this tradition, but Merida wanted no part of it and asked a witch to help her change her fate.

The story of Brave, a Disney Pixar Studios feature film released in 2012, stands out because its heroine is a strong, independent, and rebellious girl. It’s no coincidence that the cartoon is playing in a small community hall in the town of Taanayel, Lebanon — far from Scotland’s greenery. Sawsan Abdelrahim and her team from the American University of Beirut organized the screening for young Syrian refugee women living in the region. These social and health sciences researchers study the marriage of minors, which are recognized as a violation of human and children’s rights. Their goal: to reinforce girls’ understanding of this violation and to change the practice within the framework of a project called AMENAH.

“Many non-governmental organizations [NGOs] are trying to do the same, but their interventions aren’t always based on scientifically-proven programs. There is also very little data in conflict settings and among refugee populations,” says Abdelrahim, who plans to close this data gap.

In Taanayel, a Syrian NGO allows the women researchers to use their premises to meet with their protégés in a safe space. Approximately 200 girls aged 11 to 15 participated in the pilot phase of AMENAH, which means “feeling of security” in Arabic. The goal of the project’s pilot phase was to assess its feasibility through some 15 information sessions on topics as diverse as decision-making, lifestyle, gender inequalities, communication, and family relationships.

The team is preparing to expand the program in January 2020, and they are recruiting new participants, about 375 in total. “We hope to strengthen their autonomy and their attachment to school,” says Abdelrahim, “and protect them from starting a family life too early.”

When the research team arrives, about 40 teenage girls in colourful clothes and scarves are already seated at the round tables in the improvised movie theatre. The girls chatter happily as two researchers hand out orange juice and popcorn. “The idea is to offer a social activity to keep contact with them,” Abdelrahim told me during our taxi ride from Beirut to this small town in the Bekaa region, a valley on the Syrian border.

Initially, the researchers planned to screen a documentary about Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. However, they changed their minds after watching it: “There are some tough scenes that might remind the girls of what they went through during the war in Syria...”

The light-hearted atmosphere here almost makes you forget that these kids have heartbreaking life stories. Their families, like six million civilians, fled Syria when it was devastated by the war that broke out in 2011. Like all of the neighbouring countries, Lebanon absorbed several waves of refugees and it is now hosting more than 1 million Syrians (alongside the 400,000 or so Palestinians already in the country). As a result, in this small country of five million people, which is in the midst of a political and economic crisis, about one in four people are refugees — the highest concentration in the world.

Despite appearances, the girls we meet and the women who accompany them live in very precarious conditions, mostly in dilapidated and overcrowded dwellings in the Lebanese village of Bar Elias, a few kilometres from Taanayel. About 60 of them live in camps made of tents and tarpaulins set up by NGOs.

Insecurity: an aggravating factor

Children are particularly vulnerable in these contexts. In addition to the trauma, material and food shortages, and lack of medical care, many have to work in the fields for a pittance. According to a survey published in 2019 by another team from the American University of Beirut, half of the 8,000 children surveyed (among 1,900 families in camps in the Bekaa Valley) were working. “On average, children start at around 11 years old, although four-year-olds have been seen sorting tobacco leaves,” said the author of the study, Rima Habib, speaking with emotion a few days earlier at a conference on pediatrics in conflict zones in the Lebanese capital.

For girls, this stolen childhood carries the additional risk of being married to a neighbour or a cousin, often not much older than them. “Do you have children? Are you married?” one of the participants asks me in halting English at the film screening. When I ask her the same question, she bursts out laughing and shakes her head. The two groups of teenage girls attending the screenings are not the most unfortunate — none of them is married. “They all go to school and are still young. The risk of marriage increases from the age of 15 onward, although some are married earlier,” says Abdelrahim.

It’s hard to imagine these laughing teenage girls, some of whom still have the bodies and faces of little girls, as mothers. However, the numbers from an AMENAH-led study of 2,400 women refugees in 2016 speak for themselves: half of the Syrian girls between the ages of 9 and 17 did not go to school, and 24% of girls under 18 were already married.

“It is very, very high,” says Abdelrahim, adding that it is difficult to compare this data with the average rate of early marriage in Syria before the war (estimated at 15%), because refugee groups do not necessarily reflect the average population. “It’s mainly rural communities that are more likely to marry off their daughters at a young age,” she notes. Nevertheless, early marriages tend to increase everywhere in situations of conflict or forced displacement.

The annual survey conducted by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees shows similar results for Syrian communities settled in Lebanon. In 2018, 29% of girls aged 15 to 19 were married, an increase of 7% compared to 2017.

Several factors explain the upsurge, the main ones being economic (a married girl is one less mouth to feed) and security-related. “Families are afraid of sexual assault [Editor’s note: It is common in the camps and on the way to town] and think it is better for a girl to be married and protected by a man,” says Abdelrahim. The intention is to preserve the young girls’ reputation — at the expense of their freedom.

“Some of them feel that this is how they can help their families or improve their living conditions,” says Saja Michael, a gender equality activist who worked for the Lebanese NGO ABAAD for several years.

Working for ABAAD, in collaboration with a team from Queen’s University in Ontario, Michael gathered feedback and perceptions about early marriage from refugee girls, women, and men and discussed her findings with the AMENAH team. “While there is a cultural norm and a certain vision of the role of women, it does not explain the increase in cases. Our study, released in 2018, shows that people are far from thinking that this is the best option, but they feel they have no choice. So there is fertile ground for change,” she says.

But how should the problem be tackled? “That’s Sawsan’s mission, but it’s a million-dollar question,” says Michael.

A global plague

“There’s no formula that tells us what strategy to adopt to deal with early marriage in any given situation,” says Suzanne Petroni, a subject matter expert who acts as a consultant for various organizations (she does not work for AMENAH). Early marriage is far from being limited to refugees from the Middle East. While it also affects boys, girls are still six times more affected. Every year around the world, about 15 million women — one every two seconds — are married before they turn 18. Several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Bangladesh, and Nepal have the sad distinction of the highest proportion of married children (Niger holds the record at 75%).

The consequences of early marriage are widely documented: a high risk of early pregnancy and complications, especially in childbirth; increased risk of maternal and neonatal death; more frequent partner violence… The entire community suffers from premature unions, which perpetuate the cycle of poverty, keep birth rates high, and hamper women’s economic empowerment. The World Bank and the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) estimated in 2017 that the practice will cost developing countries trillions of dollars if it is not stopped by 2030.

The causes, on the other hand, are complex: cultural, of course, but also economic, religious, social, and in contexts that differ greatly from one country to another. So much so that there is a high risk of missing the target. Organizations have already campaigned in Lebanon to prevent these early unions by showing pictures of a little girl married to a very old man. “This in no way reflects Syrian reality, because typically it is two youths that marry each other. This kind of message does more harm than good because communities feel that they are being singled out,” says Sasha Fahme, one of the four researchers in attendance at the film screening.

Programs to fight child marriage, often piloted by NGOs, generally combine targeted awareness campaigns with efforts to empower girls, enhance education and health services, and cash benefits to delay marriage. But a proven formula in India, for example, where dowry remains a problem, will not necessarily apply to displaced populations, who are destabilized by the lack of social fabric and career prospects. “Different approaches work best when they’re  combined, but it’s difficult to assess the scope of each in a given context and even more difficult to set up studies to determine which measures are most cost-effective, sustainable, and have the potential for large-scale implementation,” says Petroni, a former project director at ICRW and a co-author of the 2017 report.

Even so, the studies agree on one point: empowering girls and helping them stay in school are universal protective factors. This was confirmed by a synthesis of 22 intervention studies conducted in 13 countries, published in 2017 by the Population Council’s GIRL Center.

School: the best protection

Researchers at the American University of Beirut are counting on school, and their initial results have confirmed this. “We’ve put our finger on the factors that most influence the risk of early marriage among refugees: the age when the child’s mother was married, her level of education, and the value that parents place on education,” says Abdelrahim.

In 2019, the researchers trained Syrian women refugees as “community workers”, and 13 of them delivered information sessions. These women escorted the girls to Taanayel on the buses paid for by the AMENAH project. About 10 of these workers discussed the project in the corridor as they waited for the film to end. “The sessions that the girls appreciated most were about menstruation and the changes that come with adolescence,” said one of the women, Maha Hassan. “We’ve created an atmosphere of trust and parents are happy that we discuss these topics with their daughters in their place.”

This dynamic woman, whose words were translated by the researchers, believes that these exchanges can reduce the risk of early marriage. In any case, they improve communication within families, she attests, and they raise community awareness. Amina, another worker who prefers to keep her real name confidential, says of her 18-year-old daughter: “I don’t want her to drop out of school. As long as girls are in school, they don’t get marriage proposals.”

In 2020, these women, many of whom are in their fifties, will give their places to a younger generation of “peer educators”. “Studies have shown that the message gets across better when it’s delivered by someone with whom young people can identify and who is not too close in age to their parents. We’re in the process of recruiting these educators, boys and girls, from the community,” explains Fahme, who divides her time between the AMENAH project and her work as an internist in New York City.

Fahme developed the 25 modules for the second phase of the IDRC-funded project, which will be presented once or twice weekly as of January 2020. “I was inspired by what’s been published elsewhere in the world. I kept some of the modules from the first phase, but I added many more, including some on sexual and reproductive health, violence, and on the concept of consent,” she says.

She also formed a committee that brings Lebanese and Syrian doctors, religious leaders, and Syrian women together (including one who was married before the age of 18) to ensure that information is adequately presented. This time around, the program will also target out-of-school girls, who are at even greater risk of early marriage, and married girls, who will learn about pregnancy and contraception. This indispensable knowledge is essential to ensuring a certain independence, even in a marriage.

This phase of the AMENAH project will include men and mothers to a greater extent. “Parents are a key factor in the equation. Mothers are also uninformed or uncomfortable talking about sex. As for fathers, they will have access to modules facilitated by other men about human rights, sexual violence, and contraception,” says Fahme, who admits that it was difficult to motivate them to participate in the first phase.

Will these measures be enough to reverse the trend? It’s hard to say for now because it will take several years of monitoring to get to the bottom of it. “In this second phase, we have a control group of 250 girls recruited from a nearby town who will only be presented with the nutrition module. I do hope, however, that they will have access to the AMENAH project in the future,” says Sawsan Abdelrahim, who will assess the impact of the program on the girls’ attitudes toward school. “At 15 or 16, like all teenage girls, sometimes they’re the ones who want something else.” To have fun, among other things, and to have a good time with friends, even in a makeshift cinema.

At the end of the screening, the young people leave the community hall in tidy rows to return to a life of exile that is characterized by deprivation, uncertainty, and impassable military roadblocks. Unlike Disney’s heroine, they will not be able to use magic to change their fate. However, thanks to the work of the AMENAH team, they will be better equipped.

The original French version of this article was published in the January 2020 issue of Québec Science.

Photo: IDRC/Catalina Martin-Chico