“God help these girls. Girls should not be married. They are getting miscarriages, they are being beaten… they are getting married so young.”
Layla, a Syrian mother in Lebanon

After fleeing the conflict in Syria as young children, Omaima and her best friend Basma went to school together in Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. The girls were just 13 years old when they learned that Basma was going to be married.

“We were always together, and she was one of the best students in our class,” says Omaima. “She didn’t want to get married, but her parents thought it was the best option for her.”

Omaima never saw her friend again.

Every year, 15 million girls around the world become child brides. They join an estimated 400 million women now aged between 20 and 49 who were married before the age of 18.

Every year, 15 million girls around the world become child brides.

Child marriage not only deprives girls of their freedom and fundamental rights to education and health. It also puts them at increased risk of sexual, physical and psychological violence – not just during their youth, but throughout their lives.

Syrian refugee Omaima teaches a drawing class to raise awareness of the dangers of early marriage. © UNHCR/ A. Sakkab

Early marriage, fuelled by poverty and insecurity, is on the rise amongst Syrian refugee girls. © UNHCR/ A. Sakkab

The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign from 25 November to 10 December highlights the devastating impact of violence against women and girls around the world. For girls caught up in humanitarian crises, early marriage is the one of the biggest threats to their safety.

Child marriage among Syrian girls almost tripled between 2011 and 2014. In Za’atari camp, UNHCR teams provide early marriage counselling to all those intending to marry before turning 18, highlighting risks including the health dangers posed by early pregnancy.

If the girl is under 15, the Jordanian Government is able to intervene, but unofficial marriages can remain undetected. Advocacy programs often come up against the hard facts of life as a refugee: poverty, little access to education and heightened risks for women and girls without a male companion.

Majida, a Syrian refugee who lives in Amman, Jordan, has already received five different marriage proposals for her 14-year-old daughter. One man visited their house multiple times, bringing money, rice, meat, and other gifts.

She has refused the offers, but for a family struggling to survive in run-down, overcrowded accommodation, living without sanitation facilities, electricity or even adequate food, these proposals can look like their child’s only chance for a secure future.

One of UNHCR’s most effective interventions for survival strategies like early marriage is the innovative Lifeline program. Under this system of aid delivery, families are given a cash transfer that allows them to buy the things they need the most, pay their rent and buy food. This helps them to avoid desperate tactics – including the early marriage of their daughters – to make ends meet.

Three years after her first encounter with child marriage, Omaima is doing all she can to raise awareness of the issue, working as an outreach volunteer and hosting art and acting workshops. She looks forward to getting married herself one day, but not before she has achieved her goals.

“Only on my terms, after I’ve finished my education and been to university,” she says.

Please help vulnerable Syrian families avoid desperate measures to survive.
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Omaima teaching her drawing class which raises awareness of the dangers of early marriage. © UNHCR/ A. Sakkab

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