Stories from Iraq | Published by El Pais

Is Social Media Fueling Child Marriage in Syrian Refugee Camps?

According to the UN, large scale displacement caused by the Syria conflict has led to an alarming rise in child marriage cases. Poverty, insecurity, and the belief that perhaps, their daughters will have a better life elsewhere, can all lead to some refugee families marrying their children off.

But what if there is another cause that we can all relate to — social media.

Shielding herself with a blanket on the floor of a women’s refuge centre in one of Iraq’s refugee camps, 17-year-old Aya fled Syria on foot when she was just ten years old.

“Married life has been difficult,” says Aya. “When I was 15, I didn’t want to marry but my parents forced me. They told me I am old now and I have to marry, and they have no other choice for me. I left school because of this.”

“From the beginning, my husband would come home and force me, hit me and beat me. My husband was 23 when we married.”

Aya’s social worker, Fatima, says the women’s centre where Aya seeks refuge has two case files on her — one from the abuse inflicted by her father before the marriage and one from the abuse inflicted by her husband.

Large spousal age gaps, cultural gender power imbalances and social isolation result in girls who marry before the age of 18 being at far greater risk of becoming victims of domestic violence than those who marry at an older age.

Aya tightly grips the hand of her social worker.  Photography by Daniel Wheeler.

An experienced social worker, Fatima, works for an Iraqi NGO in one of Iraq’s ten Syrian refugee camps. She believes that social media may be an overlooked factor behind child marriage in the camp.

“Because of social media, parents feel like they have less control over their children,” she explains. If the families marry their daughters off earlier, there is less risk of the children bringing shame upon them.”

This pre-emptive avoidance of possible shame is creating a damaging new norm in the camps.

Nearly 100 miles away in another of Iraq’s refugee camps, 17-year-old Ronny, claims he wasn’t nervous before his arranged wedding two months ago because “it’s normal now” to get married so young.

Ronnys father, Ahmed, bought his son’s wife for $2500. “My wife is sick and needs help around the house,” he explains. “I spoke to my friend (who is also a relative) and told him that we have a son and I want him to get married. He refused at first because he said she was too young. But then I said I can pay.”

When asked why he thinks child marriage in the camp is becoming ‘normal,’ he says: “The situation in Syria before the war was very good but now in the camp, things are bad, and people need money.” Another reason, he explains, is mobile phones. “Before the war we lived in a small village and we all knew each other. Now we live with lots of people and we don’t know everyone,” he says. “Our children are constantly speaking to each other on WhatsApp, Snapchat, Facebook. We don’t know what’s being said.”

According to UNHCR, Iraq is currently home to 228,573 registered Syrian refugees. Photography by Daniel Wheeler.

Mays al-Nawayseh, Syria Protection Advisor at World Vision, adds: “There is often a lack of understanding when it comes to social media. Girls in the camp sometimes think that when they delete a message or conversation on their phone, that it’s gone forever, completely unaware that the messages still exists on the other persons’ phone.”

This lack of understanding can lead to vulnerable girls being blackmailed. This only needs to happen a handful of times in the camp for parents to take notice and begin to fear the girls bringing shame upon their family name.

Child marriage has devastating consequences, particularly for young girls. Children borne from children bring health risks for both parties. According to the World Health Organisation, complications in pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death in young women aged 15–19.

For the survivors, malnutrition is often prevalent — caused by children who don’t know how to look after their babies or simply can’t afford to.

A number of international organisations are working to combat child marriage in the camps, educating parents on the medical complications of early childbirth for example.

Alleviating poverty, educating parents on health and protection risks for their children and tackling cultural norms is vital in the fight against child marriage — but can more be done to educate families about the risks of social media?

Mays al-Nawayseh says: “We need a comprehensive approach to tackle child marriage among communities affected by the Syria crisis. It’s a growing problem, and fears around social media, mobile communications and loss of parental control is helping to fuel the issue. Ultimately, young girls are paying the price — sometimes with their lives.”


© 2019 by Daniel Benjamin Wheeler.

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