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memri
October 1, 2015 No.
1189

Efforts In Syria To Stop The Spread Of Marriages Of Underage Girls

Introduction

One serious result of the war that has been raging in Syria for over four years is the exploitation of underage girls, including being married off by their families. While such marriages were taking place in Syria before the war - in 2010, the Syrian parliament had even held a workshop in conjunction with the United Nations on the problem[1] - there has been a significant increase in such cases in the country since the war began.

Syrian law sets the legal age for marriage at 18 for boys and 17 for girls. However, the law allows boys as young as 15 and girls as young as 13 to wed, with certain restrictions, such as, in the case of girls, the presence in the courtroom and the signed agreement of her legal guardian, i.e. her father or grandfather. In some cases, the qadi (Muslim judge) may assess the girl's physical readiness for marriage and disallow it if he deems her unready.

With the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, the practice, which previously was found mostly among poor families, began to spread across the camps of Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon,[2] as well as in areas of the country controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS). Today it is also found in areas controlled by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, in areas controlled by the rebels, and in areas controlled by the Kurds; however, due to the current chaos in Syria, there is no accurate data regarding its extent.

Syrian Justice Minister Najm Hamad Al-Ahmad has said that in 2013 only 10% of marriages registered with the shar'ia courts involved underage girls, and called the increase "cause for concern."[3] Damascus chief qadi Mahmoud Al-Ma'arawi said that more than half of marriage requests in the city involved girls under 17.[4] Furthermore, since the conflict began, 'urf marriages - that is, marriages according to custom, that are not  registered with the state authorities, and that very often involve underage girls - have also increased, for a number of reasons, not least because courts are not operating in many parts of the country and citizens often fear to travel. According to one report, 400 'urf marriages take place in Syria every day; it is also estimated that every day, 200 underage girls are wed in Syria.[5]

This increase in the practice of underage girls marrying has several causes: the dire economic situation in the country, which pressures parents to marry off their daughters in order to cut back on living expenses; the decline in personal security, especially for women, which motivates parents to ensure that their daughters' safety and honor are protected by a husband; and the war's many casualties, which strengthens families' desires for continuity.

Many of these marriages are short-lived, ending in divorce when the very young brides are found to be incapable of caring for a family. As a result, there have been popular information campaigns, in areas controlled by the rebels, by the Kurds, and by the regime, to educate the public about the risks of underage girls marrying, and to try to curb the spread of the practice.

This report will review some of these information campaigns.

Campaigns Against Marriage Of Underage Girls In Rebel-Controlled Areas

Most of the activism against the marriage of underage girls is taking place in rebel-controlled areas, apparently due to the greater freedom of action that social activists have there in contrast to the regime-controlled areas. Another possible explanation is that in these regions, more underage girls are being given in marriage to Syrians or to foreigners, especially those who came to fight alongside the rebel forces; however, there is no data on this.

The activism is generally initiated by locals, sometimes in collaboration with international bodies. Activists hold conferences and lectures to raise social awareness about the grave consequences of the practice; thus, in February 2015, the Ma'an cultural center in the Idlib area held lectures for women on the social and psychological harm caused by it.[6]

As part of the activity, two campaigns stand out: "Child Not Wife" and "Our Daughters - Entrusted To Us."

The 'Child Not Wife' Campaign

In January 2015, the opposition magazine Sa'ida Suriya ("Syrian Woman") launched the "Child Not Wife" campaign, in collaboration with the Canadian government. Inspired by other campaigns against the marriage of underage girls prevalent in the Arab world, it lasted about a month and included activities in refugee camps inside and outside Syria and in rebel-controlled areas, as well as social media activity. The activists, who sometimes took substantial risks, also collected testimony from Syrian girls whose families had married them off.[7]


The "Child Not Wife" campaign (Facebook.com/childnotwife/timeline?ref=page_internal, February 3, 2015)

One of the leaflets circulated as part of the campaign (see below) stated: "Premature marriage robs a girl of her biological age, denies her the love of her parents and her right to study and play, and exposes her to health and psychological risks. Join us in opposing the marriage of underage Syrian girls, especially to non-Syrians of unknown lineage. Join us in supporting and protecting every girl who has experienced premature marriage.[8]

The campaign sought to raise awareness of the phenomenon in the West as well. One leaflet encouraging people to support the campaign by submitting a photo of themselves holding the campaign logo, posting to the campaign's webpage, or making a 10-second video with an anti-early marriage message, was translated into English.[9]

Sa'ida Suriya editor Muhammad Malak, who is also one of the campaign's directors, attributed the increase in the marriage of underage girls in Syria to the influx of foreigners coming to fight alongside the extremist Islamic groups. These foreigners, he said, have infected the locals with the notion that marriage to underage girls is legitimate and permissible according to the Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad. He also mentioned other factors, including poverty, the disintegration of families, and the absence of a family breadwinner.[10]

The "Our Daughters - Entrusted To Us" Campaign

On June 8, 2015, some three months after the "Child Not Wife" campaign ended, the Council of Aleppo Rebels launched a campaign called "Our Daughters - Entrusted To Us" in the rebel-controlled parts of the city. The London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported, in April 2015, on a significant increase in marriages of underage girls in the Aleppo region; it stated that five marriages of girls 15 or under took place in Aleppo's rural northern area on a single evening. It added that activists in the region were blaming the authorities, and that they had called on them to launch initiatives and campaigns against the practice.[11] "Our Daughters - Entrusted To Us" may be a response to these calls.

The announcement for the campaign stated: "The unique general situation of Syrians today has had many consequences that have aggravated their suffering. Some of these consequences have become dangerous phenomena that must be addressed so that we may rid ourselves of them... One of these is the marriage of very young girls, with various justifications: poverty, the need for protection, alleviating the [economic] burden [on their families]... [Although] our religious scholars have permitted the marriage of underage girls with the approval of their custodians - their father or grandfather - other scholars amongst the leaders in the [Islamic] nation have a different opinion that prohibits this. We... are facing a bitter reality that requires a new approach... [Today], [these underage] wives bear alone the burden of caring for a family that can be borne only by an adult woman... Similarly, a woman has the right... to choose her life's partner voluntarily and out of conviction...

"We appeal to every father, mother, and custodian, and anyone wishing to get married in our country not to hasten to marry off these girls out of fear of poverty or out of greed... We call upon all our countrymen on whom Allah has bestowed a livelihood to help the poor, the orphans, the widows... and to protect them from causing harm to their daughters due to duress..."[12]

Abu-Mihyu Al-Kurdi, chairman of the Salah Al-Din neighborhood rebel council in Aleppo and one of the campaign's organizers, explained why the campaign was necessary: "Many mothers prefer to marry off their daughters to free themselves from economic and social pressures, especially mothers who have become widowed. We are dealing with a phenomenon that is now spreading in Aleppo society..."

The campaign activity included circulating flyers and holding conferences led by psychologists and gynecologists. Al-Kurdi said that the campaign was aimed also at helping poor families economically.[13]


Announcement of the "Our Daughters - Entrusted To Us" campaign

Syrian Regime Attempts To Fight Marriage Of Underage Girls - But The Clerics Don't Outlaw It

The war has also impacted the regions of Syria controlled by the regime. While there are not as many marriages of underage girls in these areas, the practice is nonetheless carried out, both among citizens who fled the embattled regions to come here and among the locals. There is no overwhelming opposition to it among Syrian government bodies, particularly among the regime-appointed Muslim clerics. Damascus chief qadi Mahmoud  Al-Ma'arawi said that while normally the marriage of underage girls is undesirable, and in many cases ends in divorce, under current circumstances it is positive, since some fathers seek to prevent their daughters' exploitation, particularly in areas of Rif-Damascus.[14]

In February 2014, Syria's Justice Ministry held a workshop in Damascus at which it discussed the extent of the practice, especially in the refugee camps outside Syria, primarily in Turkey. It is possible that one objective of the conference was to criticize the government of Turkey, where many Syrian refugees have fled, due to the Syria-Turkey hostility since the beginning of the conflict in Syria. The workshop participants included Syrian Justice Minister Najm Hamad Al-Ahmad, Syrian Mufti Ahmad Badr Al-Din Hassoun, and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Luca Al-Khouri.  

At the workshop, disagreements emerged over how to deal with the increase in marriage of underage girls. Minister Al-Ahmad said that it must begin with legislation geared towards gradually ending the practice; he added that a committee had been set up to identify clauses of laws that were discriminatory to women and that this committee would present its recommendations. Additionally, he said, the ministry was working on cases involving harm to Syrian women in refugee camps in Turkey, and would be filing lawsuits in the appropriate courts.

Muslim clerics, however, limited their disapproval to only those marriages of underage girls that take place outside the shari'a courts. Syria Mufti Ahmad Badr Al-Din Hassoun called for harsher penalties for anyone drawing up a marriage contract for an underage girl outside the shari'a courts. Dr. Muhammad Khair Al-Shaal, who is in charge of the family and child portfolio in the Syrian Ministry of Religious Endowments, said that the current circumstances do not require amendments to marriage laws, and called for appointing shari'a authorities to draw up marriage contracts in remote areas of the country in order to stem the rising tide of marriages of underage girls outside the shari'a courts. Additionally, Muhammad Hassan 'Awad, who heads the personal status department of the Islamic Law Faculty said that the guiding principle in marriage is the girl's best interest, not her age, and that changing the age of consent would not stop the practice but would only push families seeking to marry off their underage daughters outside the shari'a courts.[15]

In December 2014, the Aleppo Health Ministry Administration, together with the Aleppo branch of the Revolutionary Youth Union of Syria, conducted a workshop on the risks that underage marriage poses to women and to society at large. The Aleppo mufti and women's rights activists participated in the workshop.[16]

Activity Against Marriage Of Underage Girls In Kurdish-Controlled Regions

Women in regions controlled by Kurdish forces in northern Syria are overall better off than women in the rest of Syria. In November 2014, perhaps as a challenge to ISIS, the Kurdish self-government in the Al-Jazirah region of northeast Syria issued a 30-section women's rights order that applied as well to Kurdish-controlled areas in northwest Syria; it called for "equality between men and women in all spheres of private and public life" and explicitly prohibited marriage for girls under 18.[17] The penalty for such a marriage is set at one to three years' imprisonment for the girl's custodian, for the party that conducted the marriage, and for the husband.[18]

Nevertheless, the phenomenon of child marriage in Kurdish society has grown, for economic, social, and security reasons, and Kurdish authorities are conducting information activities amongst the population to curb it. In April 2015, inspired by the "Child Not Wife" campaign, the Kurdish Youth Movement (TCK) launched a campaign called "No To Marriage Of Underage Girls" in northeast Syria. Demonstrations were held in the district's Kurdish-controlled areas, and the directress of the movement's Office of Women's Affairs explained, "The campaign is a call to society, and especially to fathers, to oppose such marriages." The campaign organizers also intend to operate in the refugee camps in Turkey and Iraq, where more than a half million Kurds reside.[19]


Demonstration in a town in the Al-Hasakah region of Syria (Source: Aranews.org, April 11, 2015)

On April 20, 2015, the youth and sports authority of 'Afrin, in the Aleppo governorate, held a conference on "Motherhood During Childhood," with the participation of representatives of the Kurdish self-rule and clerics. The conference focused on the causes of the marriage of underage girls and on the practice's negative impact on health, on families, and on society.[20]

Marriages Of Underage Boys

The number of marriages of underage boys to girls even younger than themselves is also growing, though not as quickly. A resident of the Idlib region said that in her village alone, 24 boys under 18 have married. The parents of these boys, and the boys themselves, attribute the growth of this practice to the following:

1.      Economic: The tough economic situation has led many parents of girls to lower their demands for potential husbands for their daughters, in terms of both education and funds.

2.      Religious: In many rebel-controlled regions, Islamic law, which encourages very early marriage, is in force.

3.      Social: Society, which has suffered many casualties, is encouraging its children to marry and reproduce. The father of 16-year-old bridegroom Ibrahim, whose bride is 14, said: "Syria needs young people now. Bashar Al-Assad kills, and we are resisting and marrying and bringing children [into the world], so that life will continue."[21]

 

* Dr. M. Terdiman is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.

 

Endnotes:

[1] Dp-news.com, December 7, 2010.

[2] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 898, "Criticism In Arab World Over Exploitation Of Syrian Refugee Girls For Purposes Of Marriage, November 12, 2012.

[3] Aksalser.com, December 11, 2014.

[4] All4syria.info, April 24, 2014.

[5] Aksalser.com, December 11, 2014.

[6] Ennabbaladi.org, February 12, 2015.

[7] Sawthur.com, March 6, 2015.

[8] Facebook.com/childnotwife/timeline?ref=page_internal, February 3, 2015.

[9] Facebook.com/childnotwife/timeline?ref=page_internal, February 3, 2015.

[10] Almodon.com, January 7, 2015.

[11] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), April 12, 2015.

[12] Facebook.com/Council-of-Aleppo-rebels, June 8, 2015.

[13] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 10, 2015; Ennabbaladi.org, June 14, 2015.

[14] Aliqtisadi.com.sy, September 19, 2013.

[15] Nesasy.org, February 1, 2014.

[16] Aleppo.moh.gov.st, December 24, 2014.

[17] Aina.org, November 14, 2014.

[18] Aranews.org, April 20, 2015.

[19] Aranews.org, April 11, 2015.

[20] Aranews.org, April 20, 2015.

[21] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 14, 2015; Hentah.com, February 14, 2015.