Child marriage: “She is 13 but we had to marry her”

Lejla Sunagic
A Syrian refugee in Lebanon (note: this picture is used for illustrative purposes only and the woman pictured is not featured in the story)

It has been months, but the image I have of her remains unchanged. Her shy, embarrassed manner haunts my memory.

She was pale, her face almost ashen, sitting in the corner of a room crowded with vociferous, opinionated women. She, however, was silent. She was hunched over, bent as though concealing something.

Several generations of women were present for this group interview, part of a gender study I was leading on behalf of CARE International. Usually during such discussions, it’s not uncommon for the older women, who can be particularly confident, to dominate the conversation.

This household was no different – the dynamic older women were indeed happy to share their opinions, while the younger ones listened, often with their eyes lowered. That’s when I noticed her. Observing that my gaze had settled on her daughter, her mother felt compelled to explain:

Look, she is 13 but we had to marry her. It is difficult to survive with no money. We thought that a man in the household would ease our hardship. But the opposite happened. He started going from place to place, never at home, leaving her alone. So I had to return my daughter to live with us. Now, we expect a baby, one more mouth.

I glanced again at the girl. She was uncomfortable that we had drawn attention to her, embarrassed that she was the topic of our conversation. Self-consciously, she was trying to hide her growing belly.

A child still in many ways, but with this war and the desperation that accompanies it, she has prematurely been made a woman.

She did not say a single word. Much had been already said for her. Before fleeing Syria, she had been an exceptional student, her mother said, always at the top of her class, especially in English. Now, her opportunity for education is minimal, if not non-existent. Consequently, a job, even in the distant future, has been eliminated, at least from current possibility.

Her expressionless face spoke volumes for the tiny but overburdened body. What can our role be to ensure voices like hers are among those that we listen for, even when vulnerable and momentarily silent?

In every corner of the globe, people experience or have at least witnessed different forms of gender-based violence – from sexual violence, to domestic violence, to general discrimination. I am no exception. However, before I began working for CARE International in Lebanon, child marriage, as a form of gender-based violence, was something distant and blurred, somehow not real.

I have worked on gender issues in development for eight years, but it is with new eyes that I now understand the importance of addressing gender issues, and child marriage, in emergencies.

These issues are multifaceted and complex, and our response demands as much.

Families who have survived violent conflict now face an uncertain future as refugees in a strange place, without money, without a social safety net. This is their struggle, one they wake to daily.

It is our struggle as humanitarians, part of a global response, to address the issues that drive early marriage. This girl’s witness was my challenge.

Lejla Sunagic is a Gender in Emergencies Advisor for CARE International in Lebanon where she works on issues around gender-based violence as part of CARE’s response to the Syria crisis.

More information on child marriage

  • 37,000 girls are married every day
  • 1 million girls under the age of 15 give birth each year
  • 70,000 girls die during pregnancy and childbirth each year. This makes complications during pregnancy and childbirth the second highest cause of death for girls aged 15-19 worldwide.

Child marriage is a gateway to other forms of gender-based violence

The younger a girls marries, the more likely she is to suffer other forms of violence in the home, the less likely she is to be able to complete her education, earn an income and ultimately support the education of her own children.

By not addressing child marriage in emergencies, the international community are not only turning a blind eye to the life-threatening reproductive health impact for girls, but are also accepting that gender-based violence for this generation and the next generation will continue to worsen, and the cycle of violence will deepen.

If we do nothing, we are failing the children of Syria – and the ‘lost generation’ will be not just this generation, but the next one.

Read more in CARE’s report on child marriage in emergencies

CARE’s report To protect her honour: Child marriage in emergencies – the fatal confusion between protecting girls and sexual violence draws on our experience of working with Syrian refugees to examine the issue of child marriage in emergencies. The report calls for the prevention of child marriage to take place from the start of an emergency and to be treated as a life-saving intervention. Read more here.

Lejla Sunagic's picture

Lejla Sunagic is a Gender in Emergencies Advisor for CARE International in Lebanon where she works on issues around gender-based violence as part of CARE’s response to the Syria crisis.