Child marriage in Idlib permitted by Tahrir al-Sham, reinforced by poverty
Enab Baladi – Lujain Mourad
“All my friends got married, and I did not know about marriage except that it is ‘chastity for the girl.’ This is what they told me,” the 17-year-old Heba summarized the reason for her early marriage, reflecting the reality of hundreds of victims of underage marriage in the northern Idlib region, which heralds a tragedy whose impact may be permanent on girls and their society.
Heba was not aware of what the marriage step could bring her, and she did not have the right to choose, given that her family “knows what is best for her very well,” she told Enab Baladi, expressing the state of limbo that she is experiencing despite the passage of two years since her marriage.
Similar factors and outcomes are mainly linked to a war that cast a shadow over the region years ago, imposed conditions that restricted the future of many girls to marriage, and robbed them of their childhood and their right to choose.
While there is talk about cases of child marriage in Idlib, there are no statistics on its prevalence, which the lawyer and researcher at the Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies, Massa al-Mousili, attributed in an interview with Enab Baladi to the difficulty of fieldwork in war times and the failure of many families to report cases of child marriage.
“After our recent displacement to rural Idlib, my family prevented me from going to school for fear of the lack of safety in the area,” Heba said, explaining her family’s first motive for marrying her off at the age of 15.
Heba’s family told her daughter that marriage is a “protection” and a solution to her constant fear of being subjected to an attack that would “disgrace the family,” according to her description.
In a similar story with different motives, Feryal, 17, was forced to marry three years ago in order to “save her from poverty and camp life,” according to what she told Enab Baladi.
“My husband was living in a house, and my family was in a camp, and his financial situation was better than ours, which depended on aid.”
Feryal went on to explain that those around her portrayed marriage as “escaping” the tragedy of displacement she was experiencing, while she did not know more about marriage than what she was told.
The social researcher, Eva Atfa, told Enab Baladi that the reasons for the spread of marriage in Idlib are linked to economic, social, and security factors.
Regarding economic factors, Atfa believes that the deteriorating conditions of most families made them go to marry off their daughters to get rid of the burden of their living costs and save them from poverty.
Social conditions are linked to the existence of ideas rooted in some groups of society, which do not reject the marriage of minors and do not see it as harmful to them, in addition to that they do not see the education of girls as a priority, according to Atfa.
The researcher added that the security reality imposed by the presence of people from different backgrounds in an area that has witnessed repeated displacement leads families to believe that marriage is a protection for girls.
The decline in education, school dropouts, families’ suffering from extreme poverty, in addition to the parents’ conviction that marrying off their daughters, even if they are minors, helps solve the family’s financial crisis and provides them with a better life, are prompting many families to marry them off at an early age.
Massa al-Mousili, Lawyer and researcher at the Harmoon Center
Laws are absent
De-facto authority is a “partner”
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) controls Idlib region, along with the presence of a local administrative body called the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG). They impose provisions on society in the name of Islamic “Sharia,” which restricts the lives of girls and women in particular.
According to what Enab Baladi monitored, the Salvation Government does not prohibit the marriage of minors, as marriage contracts are officially registered without a specific age for marriage.
A study conducted by al-Mousili, the lawyer and researcher at the Harmoon Center, concluded that the ruling authorities did not have an official and legal position to limit the marriage of minors but rather encouraged it, as many minors married the HTS fighters.
Al-Mousili told Enab Baladi that the law is responsible for regulating and protecting society and that laws capable of controlling society and ensuring protection for its members play an essential role in increasing societal awareness and decreasing the rate of social crimes, pointing out that such law is absent in Idlib.
Enab Baladi contacted the Salvation Government, but it refused to provide any answers on the matter.
The presence of a (de facto) authority that legitimizes the marriage of minors and imposes laws by force contributes to the transformation of these laws into prevailing norms.
Eva Atfa, Social researcher
What is the position of Syrian law?
Article 18 of the Personal Status Law of 2019 states that “if a male or female adolescent claims puberty under the age of 15 and requests marriage, the judge will authorize it if he proves the sincerity of their claim and the possibility of their bodies to tolerate marriage.”
In this case, the consent of the guardian is required if he is the father or grandfather, according to the law.
Decree No. 24 of 2018 tightened the penalty for marrying off a minor outside the court without the permission of her guardian so that the penalty for someone who performs a marriage of this kind to a virgin girl (who has never been married) becomes imprisonment from one to six months, and a fine of 50,000 to 100,000 Syrian pounds, instead of the fine ranging from 100 to 250 pounds stipulated in the previous law.
In the event that the minor’s marriage takes place outside the court after the guardian’s approval, he shall be punished with a fine from 25,000 to 50,000 Syrian pounds.
The problem that lies in Syrian law is the failure to provide adequate protection for the minor to say no to early marriage. The door was not fully closed against this form of marriage and was not a deterrent, which contributed to making many families not see this form of marriage as a legal violation.
Massa al-Mousili, Lawyer and researcher at the Harmoon Center
Small hearts, big burdens
“My marriage lasted for five months, and after the separation, I didn’t get any of my rights,” Feryal said in a choked voice.
She got married at the age of 14, to go through months of marital problems that she could not explain with anything more than the phrase, “His mother did not like me,” Feryal said.
“I lived five harsh months, and after that, I was left facing an environment in which I was a child and returned to it (divorced),” with these words, Feryal summed up the tragedy that did not end with the end of her marriage.
The girl was not aware of the need to keep the marriage contract, nor was she aware of the need to formalize it, which allowed her husband to deprive her of her rights after the divorce.
On the other hand, despite the continuation of her marriage, Heba, 17, faces the pressures of her husband and his family and his constant threats to abandon her due to her inability to have children.
Despite the doctors’ assurances that the problem is related to her young age and nothing more, Heba faces fears of the consequences of her late pregnancy.
“Every night I cry and pray to God, I am still young, and I had a dream to complete my studies, but now all my dreams are not to return to the (displacement) tent as a divorced woman,” Heba says.
Spiral of problems
Early marriage, in many cases, transfers girls from the worlds of childhood into a spiral of problems, responsibilities, and loss of rights, while families believe that girls’ marriage is a salvation for them.
The problems that girls face are reflected in their families and their surroundings, which increases the possibility that the negative impact of early marriage will affect the entire society.
Social researcher Eva Atfa said that the damage to the girl’s mental and physical health is one of the main negative effects of early marriage.
Psychological problems are related to her inability to absorb the transition from childhood or adolescence to a stage that requires shouldering great responsibilities, in addition to marital problems resulting from her immaturity and the husband’s lack of understanding of this situation.
The researcher added that the psychological problems could be exacerbated in the case of pregnancy, as it is illogical for a female child to raise her child.
And in light of the lack of understanding between the spouses that is likely to occur in the marriage of minors, early divorce cases rise, according to Atfa.
In the event of childbearing, the children will grow up in an unhealthy and unstable environment, which makes them victims of that marriage as well, Atfa continued.
A study by the researcher al-Mousili showed that minors who become pregnant face a spiral of problems related to their lack of readiness to absorb this responsibility and the incomplete stages of their mental and physical development.
On the other hand, early marriage results in the loss of the rights of minors, especially in cases of marriage that are not officially registered, in addition to the possibility that it will result in the presence of children who are not officially registered, according to the study.
A report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) indicates that child marriage is linked to many health problems that, in some cases, can lead to death.
Pregnancy and childbirth complications are among the leading causes of death among adolescent girls between the ages of 15 and 19 in developing countries, according to the report.
What are the solutions?
The presence of deterrent laws that prevent the continued spread of this phenomenon is one of the most important solutions to the problem of underage marriage, according to researcher Massa al-Mousili.
Civil society organizations play an important role in reducing child marriage by raising the intellectual and cultural level of families and raising awareness of the importance of education and its role in improving family conditions, al-Mousili added.
The researcher recommended that civil society organizations need to work on finding job opportunities for adults in these families, in addition to working on empowering women and raising their awareness.
The UNFPA report recommends that governments, civil society, and other partners work together to ensure that girls have access to education, information, health services, and life skills training to reduce the prevalence of child marriage.
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