On a green, sun-kissed hillside in one of Lebanon’s northern towns, a two-storey stone building stands on the edge of a steep road. A red fixed ladder that acts as staircase connects the two levels of the construction. A swing hangs outside. A blur of children run past as we go inside. One chases the other around his mother, his little brother sat on her lap.
Inside the four makeshift rooms that make up the ground floor, four Syrian refugee families live. The youngest is a family where the sum of its members’ age is 34. Sahar’s husband is 20. She is only 14.
Sahar is a shy, but determined, girl. She tells her story with a voice that shakes between sentences at times. But she keeps going. She wants to say everything. To confide in girls like her. To warn potential child brides.
Sitting on a thin mattress, she leans on a wall and speaks from beneath a face veil that conceals everything but her eyes, which glint at the mention of school and the ‘beautiful past’. A tear appears, but she holds it back.
For Syrian refugee girls like Sahar, the options are very limited. Fearful of what they heard of kidnappings, rapes and even murders of young girls in their town, her family of six decided that crossing the border and seeking sanctuary in Lebanon would be the best thing to do.
The decision for Sahar to marry early came after the family fled to Lebanon, where even the borders of a new country did not bring them the security they craved. Syrian girls talk of fear of abuse, lack of economic means and their family’s desire to see them ‘settled’ as main reasons behind a recent upsurge in early marriage.
Married at 13 and pregnant at 14, Sahar had no power and little decision over a hastily-arranged union with her then-neighbour. She says she did not want to leave her family. That she was too young. In few months’ time, she will be one of the one million girls who give birth under the age of 15. She calls it a ‘mistake’ that she regrets. Even though she describes herself as attached to her husband, she says she misses her childhood. A childhood which was taken from her by war and the fear that war embedded in her family, long after they had escaped it.
Getting married at the age of 13 is never a decision that Sahar would have envisaged in a better world. She believes that children should go to school. They should wear their school uniform, not a wedding dress. Around the world, a girl under 15 is married every seven seconds. At this rate, 60 million girls could become child brides by 2020.
Sahar speaks of physical harm and emotional distress resulting from such a move.
"I didn’t realise that marriage means lots of responsibilities," she says. "Responsibilities that are very challenging and that I hadn’t thought of."
Sahar believes she is not alone in this. There has to be many girls like her. She meets them at Save the Children’s awareness-raising sessions. They share their stories and discuss what could or should have been done.
There are three other girls married at a young age in this very building. They all have the same message: don’t fall into this trap.
Sahar is excited that she will become a mother in few months’ time. But she is equally apprehensive.
‘’A child will raise a baby’’ she declares. And this time she cries.
Background and programme information
Every Last Girl, the new report from Save the Children, finds that child marriage is one of the most significant threats facing girls with one girl under 15 getting married every seven seconds, according to new research by Save the Children. It can trigger a cycle of disadvantage across every part of a girl’s life, leading to violations of girls’ rights to education and health and increasing girls’ vulnerability to multiple forms of violence.
Displaced and refugee girls are at far greater risk of being married. Scarcity of resources, limited employment opportunities for parents, caregivers and working-age young people, and a lack of protection mechanisms are often among the reasons cited for families pushing their daughters into early marriage. Girls living in conflict are also susceptible to sexual assault and rape. Their heightened vulnerability in these situations can cause families to marry their daughters as a form of protection and to preserve a girl’s honour. In such contexts, families see girls as having only two options: to be victims or to be wives.
According to UNHCR data, over 6% of Syrian girls aged between 12-17 in Lebanon are married. The Save the Children Child Protection team in North Lebanon conduct awareness-raising sessions to reach girls who have married early or are at risk of doing so. Girls facing high risk of early marriage are also referred for additional assistance through partner organisations, while other cases of unaccompanied or separated children are being supported directly through counselling and advocacy.
The sessions tackle the harmful impact of early marriage on girls, be that physical, psychological or social. Married women are encouraged to share their experiences with potential child brides, which can persuade beneficiaries to delay marriage until they reach a reasonable age. These sessions have resulted in a notable decrease in the number of early marriage cases in Akkar, North Lebanon. Parents are also given support on ways to support and communicate these issues with their children through positive parenting sessions.
Worldwide, Save the Children runs a range of programmes that support the most disadvantaged girls around the world. It is calling on governments and donors to invest in girls’ education and life chances, to help bring an end to child marriage and gender discrimination.