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POLICY MEMORANDUM

7 November 2014

To

Yumiko Kuno, Regional Policy Head, UNICEF

From

Aditya Sarkar, Senior Policy Advisor, UNICEF

Email

aditya.sarkar@tufts.edu

INCREASED CHILD MARRIAGES AMONG SYRIAN REFUGEES IN JORDAN


1.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

1.1.

This memorandum analyses the causes and context of the increasing trend of child marriages
among Syrian refugees in Jordan, and suggests some possible interventions by UNICEF. It
concludes that a lack of livelihood and physical security is at least partially responsible for
increasing child marriages, but recommends a more detailed investigation into the livelihood
strategies and coping mechanisms used by refugee families.

1.2.

To reduce the risks facing Syrian refugee girls, this memorandum recommends a three tiered
strategy based on inter-agency coordination to increase physical security in camps and
outside, exploring livelihood opportunities and most importantly, increasing the focus on
education of girl children.

2.

INTRODUCTION AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

2.1.

By June 2014, approximately 687,000 Syrian refugees had fled from the conflict in Syria to
Jordan. 1 As a result, governmental resources in Jordan have been depleted and coping
mechanisms of local authorities and populations are being severely tested. Existing refugee
camps (such as Zaatari) are overcrowded and are unable to provide for the needs of the
refugee population residing in them while around 70% of the refugees do not live in formal
camps.

2.2.

One of the observed effects of this displacement from Syria appears to be an increasing
prevalence of marriages involving a girl under 18 among Syrian refugees in Jordan (referred
to as child marriages in this memorandum) and across the region more generally. Among
the Syrian refugee community in Jordan, the proportion of registered child marriages has

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risen from 12% in 2011, to 18% in 2012 and 25% in 2013. In the first quarter of 2014, 32% of
all registered marriages of Syrian refugees in Jordan involved a girl under 182. Spousal age
gaps have also increased in 2012, WHO recorded that 17% of Syrian child brides had
married men fifteen years or more older than them. 3
35
30
25
Proportion of
marriages among
Syrian refugees
involving a girl
under 18

20
15
10
5
0
2011

2012

2013 2014 Q1

2.3.

The data is complicated further by the fact that many Syrian refugee families have not
registered child marriages, for a number of reasons ranging from wishing to register
marriages in Syria when the conflict ends, to ignorance about registration requirements in
Jordan or perhaps even a reluctance to register child marriages, generally4. The incidence of
child marriages may be more widespread than is thought.

3.

CONTEXT AND CAUSES

3.1.

Articulated causes: Some of the overarching concerns articulated by Syrian refugee families
as justifications for increased child marriages are analysed below:
3.1.1. Economic security of the household: The lack of livelihood and employment
opportunities for Syrians within Jordan is consistently cited as one of the main factors
in the early marriage of girls.5 Marriage of the girl child is perceived as reducing the
economic demands on a family with dwindling resources and no access to income. In
particular, marriage to an older man is seen as providing some economic security to
the girl child, alhough families acknowledge the potential risks of increased domestic
violence, and incomplete education. Lautze and Raven Roberts (2006) have described
this as a common strategy for people coping with severely constrained livelihood
opportunities. The problem of constrained livelihoods is particularly acute for families
with no surviving male members as women tend to have restricted access to economic
networks and resources and limited mobility (Giles, 2013) for example, half of all
Syrian refugee families headed by women had no income other than aid (Sami,
Williams, Krause, Onyango, Burton, Tomczyk, 2014). Unfortunately, there does not
appear to be a great deal of disaggregated data in respect of the prevalence of child

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marriages among these families, nor on the survival/livelihood mechanisms being


utilised by these families.
Increasing child marriages is a good example of maladaption strategies that are
used by households to cope with the pressures of short-term change, but which
undermine the ability of girl children to adapt in the longer term (Pain and Levine,
2012).
3.1.2. Physical security of the girl child: Reports suggest that concerns about physical
security have played an important role in decisions about child marriages. 6 Syrian
refugee women report that they are exposed to a high degree of everyday violence
such that it has conditioned their day-to-day existence, isolating them and restricting
their mobility (See Lautze, et al (2006) for an analysis of the transformative impact of
everyday violence). Girls have been subjected to threats of harassment and assault as
they walk to school or go to collect aid or water, or when they use toilets in camps.
Families with sole or no surviving male members reported feeling especially
threatened. Some parents, therefore, appear to perceive child marriages as protecting
girls from sexual assault, and, at the same time, safeguarding the honour of the family.
3.1.3. Integration into Jordan: In some cases, child marriage is seen as a strategy for
facilitating re-settlement. Marriage into a Jordanian family would allow the girls
family to move out of camps and live in the host community. Similarly, some child
marriages have been performed in Syria between Syrian men and girls because of the
perception that it was easier for married Syrian men to enter Jordan.7
3.2.

Varied attitudes to child marriage: UNICEF reports indicate that women refugees are less
likely to want their daughters to marry early, and that decisions about child marriage
ultimately rest with the male head of the household. However, it is important to acknowledge
that attitudes vary some fathers reject child marriages while some mothers are in favour of
them.8

4.

POTENTIAL CONSEQUENCES OF INCREASED CHILD MARRIAGES


Some of the well-documented consequences of early marriages on girl brides are briefly set
out below:

4.1.

Physical and Mental Health risks: Child marriage has the effect of removing girls from
networks of family and friends, leading to social and psychological isolation (and in case of
girls facing domestic violence, to psychosocial trauma). This in turn, restricts their access to
sexual and reproductive health resources. Consequently, WHO suggests that adolescent
pregnancy is the second largest cause of deaths of 15-19 year olds worldwide.9

4.2.

Education: Girls who marry young tend to lose their access to education. In addition to the
limitations on a girls access to future employment, this further isolates the girl from her peer

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group, and prevents her from forming the social networks that could support her later
(Machel, Pires, Carlsson, 2013).
4.3.

Widowhood: Child brides who are significantly younger than their husbands are more likely
to have to cope with widowhood. In the Syrian refugee context, given the low rate of
registration of marriages with Jordanian authorities, this may also mean that child brides may
lose access to legal rights. A combination of loss of education and early widowhood for the
child bride may have harmful implications for the next generation of children. They may be
vulnerable to child marriage, exploitative child labour and even pressures to become child
soldiers.10

4.4.

Increased Domestic Violence: Studies suggest that girls who get married before 18 are
more likely to experience domestic violence than their peers who get married later.11

5.

THE LEGAL FRAMEWORK


Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), marriage requires the free and
full consent of both spouses (Art. 16(2)). Consequently, child marriage is seen as a violation
of a childs human rights. Child marriage is also prohibited by the 1979 Convention on the
Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (See Art. 16(b) and Art. 16(2)).
In Jordan the minimum age of marriage is 18, though a Sharia court may authorise (and it is
not uncommon for it to so authorise) a marriage of a 15-17 year old girl under some
circumstances.

6.

POTENTIAL INTERVENTIONS

6.1.

Holistic response: Although the increase in child marriages among Syrian refugees in
Jordan is caused by a complex set of circumstances, driven by the experience of displacement
and lack of security, interventions aimed at the protection of girl children may, broadly, be in
the form of one or more, of the following: (a) provide remedy to individual victims of harm,
(b) reduce the risk exposure of girl children, and (c) persuade the Jordanian government to
increase the protection for Syrian refugee girls (see Reichhold and Binder, 2013 for a
conceptual protection framework). Notwithstanding which approach is chosen, any strategy
will need multi-stakeholder (i.e. government, multilateral agency and charity) intervention
across the justice, security, livelihood and education sectors. Needless to say, the design of
these interventions should be participatory, and pay attention to existing gender
relationships.

6.2.

Providing support to child brides: Strategies aimed at ameliorating the condition of child
brides should include the creation of community support networks, creation of safe spaces
(including provision of reproductive health services and treatment and counselling for
domestic and sexual violence) and livelihood training. Evidence suggests that community
level organisations can create channels for social and political participation (World Bank,
Checkpoints and Barriers, 2010), which in turn can allow the girls to build informal support
networks, as well as have some access to livelihood resources.

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6.3.

Reducing the risk exposure of Syrian refugee girl children:


6.3.1. Education: Reports suggest that girls in school are three times less likely to marry
before 18 than those without secondary or higher education. 12 In particular,
community based education tends to be seen as more secure than a school further
away, and allows for the adaption of teaching techniques and materials particularly to
provide for the safety of the girl children. Education should also include some age
appropriate livelihood skills training.
6.3.2. Improving Safety: Safety within camps needs to be improved. One way of effectively
doing this is to use safety audits13 allowing women and children to identify risks in
the community and highlight them to camp management. Outside camps, the
Jordanian government should be encouraged to enforce existing anti-harassment laws
and efforts should be made to involve community and religious leaders in advocacy
campaigns aimed at improving safety.
6.3.3. Enforcing legal safeguards: Some Sharia judges have not strictly enforced the
procedural safeguards under Jordanian law for marriages of girls below 18 (including
continuing education and reasonable spousal age difference). A campaign to publicise
the requirement of marriage registration as well as stricter enforcement could, at least,
provide a minimum degree of scrutiny of child marriages.
6.3.4. Providing livelihood support to families: Creating mechanisms such as food-forwork, employment opportunities within the camps, or even small cash hand-outs can
be helpful in the short term. It is, of course, necessary to ensure that this is done with
due regard to gender, but also keeping in mind the possibility of greater societal
tension if men feel marginalised from the labour market. In the longer term, the issue
of livelihoods is particularly complex given Jordans restrictive regulations concerning
a refugees right to work as well as the potential impact of cheap labour on the local
host population. However, providing adequate livelihoods is at the core of reducing
the risk exposure of Syrian refugee girls.
6.3.5. Counselling: Education sessions and counselling for parents (both men and women)
and children might increase awareness of the dangers of child marriages. In particular,
adolescent girls may be better equipped to resist or deal with an early marriage.14

6.4.

Increasing government protection: Although the weakest of the three protection


interventions, this is still important. Effective implementation of the procedural safeguards in
Jordanian law proscribing the marriage of minors except in special circumstances, as well as
anti-harassment laws may help protect girl brides.

6.5.

Greater information: Detailed age and sex disaggregated data about the livelihood
strategies and gender roles among Syrian refugees could help us create more effective
protection strategies for women and girls.

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7. CONCLUSION
In the short term, UNICEF should focus on a three-tiered strategy. First, given the centrality
of education in reducing child marriages, community based education (CBE) programs should
be implemented in the refugee camps and outside. The locations of these CBE centres should be
determined in consultation with the Syrian refugee community, incorporating feedback from
women and children. These CBE centres should also include counselling facilities (providing
reproductive health services, treatment and assistance for girls facing domestic and sexual
violence), and provide age appropriate livelihood training.
Second, there should be an inter-agency effort to increase livelihood support for Syrian refugees
(and in particular, female-headed households). As discussed above, providing sustainable
livelihoods through food-for-work, camp employment opportunities, or even small cash handout schemes may ease the economic pressure on households.
Lastly, given the restrictions of its mandate, UNICEF should try to coordinate an inter-agency
strategy to increase security within the camps and communities through an advocacy campaign
involving representatives (both male and female) of the Syrian refugee community, multilateral
agencies, charities, Jordanian community and religious leaders and the Jordanian state.
_________________________________________
WORKS CITED
1. Giles, Women Forced to Flee: Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, in Cohn (ed)
Women & Wars, (Polity Press 2013), p. 80.
2. Lautze and Raven-Roberts, Violence and Complex Humanitarian Emergencies:
implications for livelihoods models, (2006) 30(4) Disasters, p. 383.
3. Machel, Pires & Carlsson, The world we want: An end to child marriage, (2013) 382
The Lancet, 1005.
4. Pain and Levine, A conceptual analysis of livelihoods and resilience: addressing the
insecurity of agency, (2012) ODI Humanitarian Policy Group Working Paper.
5. Reichhold and Binder, Scoping study: what works in protection and how do we know?
(2013) Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), p. 5, 18.
6. Samira, Williams, Krause, Onyango, Burton, and Tomczyk. Responding to the Syrian
crisis: the needs of women and girls (2014) 383 The Lancet, p. 1179.

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ENDNOTES
See UNHCR, 2014 Syria Regional Response Plan (2014). Available at
http://www.unhcr.org/syriarrp6/docs/Syria-rrp6-full-report.pdf.
2 See UNICEF, A Study on Early Marriage in Jordan (2014). Available at
http://www.unicef.org/media/files/UNICEFJordan_EarlyMarriageStudy2014-email.pdf.
3 See Save the Children, Too Young to Wed: The Growing Problem of Child Marriage among Syrian Girls in
Jordan (2014). Available at http://www.savethechildren.org/atf/cf/%7B9def2ebe-10ae-432c-9bd0df91d2eba74a%7D/TOO_YOUNG_TO_WED_REPORT_0714.PDF.
4 There is only anecdotal evidence to suggest this. UNICEF, A Study on Early Marriage in Jordan (2014)
at pp 15, 27. .
5 Id.
6 See International Rescue Committee, Are We Listening: Acting on Our Commitments to Women and Girls
Affected by the Syrian Conflict (2014). Available at
http://www.rescue.org/sites/default/files/page_wrappers/assets/syria/pdf/IRC_WomenInSyria_Report_WEB.
pdf.
7 UNICEF, A Study on Early Marriage in Jordan (2014).
8 Id.
9 See http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs364/en/.
10 See http://www.unicef.org/appeals/syrianrefugees.html.
11 See http://www.icrw.org/child-marriage-facts-and-figures.
12 Save the Children, Too Young to Wed: The Growing Problem of Child Marriage among Syrian Girls in Jordan
(2014). See also Save the Children, Futures Under Threat: The Impact of the Education Crisis on Syrias Children
(2014). Available at http://www.savethechildren.org/atf/cf/%7B9def2ebe-10ae-432c-9bd0df91d2eba74a%7D/FUTURES_UNDER_THREAT.PDF.
13 International Rescue Committee, Are We Listening: Acting on Our Commitments to Women and Girls Affected
by the Syrian Conflict (2014) at 15.
14 Id, 17.
1

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