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Syrian Refugee Girls Married Off for Protection

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Posted on Nov 12, 2013
DFID - UK Department for International Development (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Zaatari holds about 120,000 Syrians, making it the second-largest refugee camp in the world.

Though it is common for Syrian children to be married before 18, displacement has made marriage take on a new urgency. With rumors of rape and kidnapping roaming Syrian refugee camps, families often believe the best option for their girls is to be wed as soon as possible.

In one such camp in Zaatari, Jordan, many teenagers celebrate their nuptials despite a Jordanian law prohibiting the union for those under the age of 15. But Zaatari refugees are exempt from having to obtain their host country’s permission for a wedding. Even so, many young ones are married before their arrival in Jordan. Although the girls are never given a choice in the matter, nor asked whether their families forced them into the arrangement, many believe the true danger does not lie in early marriages but rather in foreign suitors. One case, recently reported by Inter Press Service in the same refugee camp this month, tells of Amani, a woman who sold her sister for $300 to a Saudi suitor in order to sustain her family of 10. “I have seen Jordanians, Egyptians and Saudis passing by the tents in search of a virgin to take along,” said Amani. “They pay 300 dollars, and they get the girl of their dreams. ... I knew she wasn’t in love, but I also knew that he would take care of her. I would have sold myself, but Amara was the only virgin in our family. We had to sell her, in order to allow the rest of us to survive. What else could I do?”

Sheikh Hussin, who’s performed as many as 30 ceremonies since his arrival in Zaatari just 10 months ago, tells Al-Jazeera English about the danger of “unknown men from outside the camp” marrying Syrian girls:

“A few months ago a widow with three children married a man from Saudi Arabia,” [Sheikh Hussin] said. “After two months of living in Amman, he forced her to bring the children back to her mother in Za’atari. She refused and came back to the camp, where people started gossiping about her constantly. She couldn’t take the severe pressure anymore, left, and committed suicide.”

Women who work as marriage fixers for Jordanian or Saudi men often show up in the camp, asking people if they know any girls who want to get married. Human rights organisations report that some of these girls end up in prostitution or so called “pleasure marriages,” whereby a man divorces the women shortly after consummating the marriage.

A Jordanian man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he had been advised to go to Za’atari if he wanted to get married fast:

“I told them I was looking for a wife. ‘Go to the refugee camp,’ they said, ‘because Syrian women are almost for free.”

According to people living in the refugee camp, these cases are declining, as permission is now required to enter Za’atari. Jordanian military guards check passports at the entrance, while, inside the streets are watched over by local “street guards,” mostly men distributing a share of the aid provided by international and domestic organisations.

Meanwhile, every day men from inside and outside the camp wander the main road in Zaatari (nicknamed “Champs Elysées”) in search of a wife as girls prepare for their arranged nuptials in bridal shops on the same street.

—Posted by Natasha Hakimi

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