A decade of conflict in Syria has led to a sharp decline in girls’ rights, according to a new report by Plan International.
The In Harm’s Way research – carried out in Northwest Syria with women-led organisation Women Now For Development – examines the “invisible” toll that years of war, exacerbated by gender inequality, have taken on girls and young women.
Widespread poverty and a lack of education opportunities have led to a steep increase in adolescent girls becoming married as children – a practice which although not new to Syria, was relatively uncommon prior to the beginning of the conflict in 2011.
Interviews with girls, their parents and social workers suggest that the practice is increasing because desperate families see marrying their daughters as a way to cope with economic hardship.
In 2006, UN estimates suggest 13% of Syrian girls were married before their 18th birthday. Today, ongoing conflict means that reliable data from inside the country is scarce – but a survey of young displaced Syrian women in Lebanon found that 41% were married before the age of 18.
A significant number of mothers told Plan International and Women Now that although they oppose child marriage during peace time, during conflict it is a way to protect girls from harassment and violence while alleviating economic burden on the family, especially when a woman is the head of household.
Child marriage – recognised under international law as a human rights violation and both a form and a cause of violence against girls – has devastating consequences, often leading to girls dropping out of school or becoming pregnant at a young age.
Nearly a third of those interviewed (32%) for the study said child marriage was a key reason why rates of self-harm and suicide have increased in Syria in recent years.
One psychosocial support worker who took part in the study said: “Early marriage is one of the main causes of mental and psychological problems for girls in these areas. They become more aggressive or depressed because they are unable to cope with the new roles and responsibilities. In some cases, the girls tried to commit suicide to end their misery”.
Almost all adolescent girls interviewed were against child marriage and on average, said the minimum legal age should be 20. Although under Syrian law, the minimum legal age of marriage is 17 for girls, legal loopholes allow children to be married if it is judged as being in their best interest.
There were also reports of new and alarming forms of violence increasing in their intensity and effect, such as forced puberty — which involves giving young girls hormones to induce puberty for the purposes of child marriage or sexual exploitation.
One gynaecologist interviewed in Idlib acknowledged that this practice existed and that many parents asked her for hormone pills but she always refused to give it to them: “This is a very harmful act against the girls; it affects their reproductive and mental health. In addition, they will face many complications in the sexual relations with their partners, pregnancy, delivering the baby and breastfeeding since they are not ready mentally and physically to be in such situations,” she said.
The percentage of adolescent girls who attend school has also dropped markedly and is now just one in three (31%). Prior to the conflict, 97% of primary school aged children were in education and literacy rates were thought to be over 90% for men and women.
Most schools in Northwest Syria are still operational, but security concerns, child marriage and family obligations such as housework and taking care of younger siblings often prevent girls from attending lessons.
All girls interviewed also said that COVID-19 has made the situation worse, with many being unable to take part in online lessons due to high costs, poor internet and a lack of electricity.
School attendance is a key measure of gender equality, and the right to education is recognised under international human rights law. Being out of school frequently exposes girls to exploitation and abuse.
Plan International Australia, the charity for girls’ equality, is now calling on governments, donors and humanitarian actors working in Syria to prioritise child protection and prevention and response to gender-based violence and safeguard adolescent girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Plan International Australia supports a minimum age for marriage at 18, regardless of gender, and calls on governments to close loopholes in legal frameworks that leave girls vulnerable to being married younger than this.
Plan International Australia also calls for all governments to prioritise and increase funding to girls’ education.
“Education is one of the most effective ways to protect girls from the harms of child marriage,” said Plan International Australia Deputy CEO Hayley Cull.
“It also ensures they have the opportunity to fulfil their hopes and dreams and contribute to rebuilding Syria after more than a decade of conflict. Educated girls have the potential to transform the world.”
Hiba Alhejazi, Advocacy and Influencing Manager at Plan International said: “Our research paints a heart-breaking picture of the reality in Syria today. Girls’ rights are yet another casualty of the war, as existing gender inequalities have become heightened over 10 years of violence, with families being forced to flee their homes and rebuild their lives, often multiple times.
“From being forced into marriage to dropping out of school, adolescent girls in Syria are paying a high price for harmful and discriminatory gender norms. But they are often invisible, with their needs overlooked by the international community.
“Unless efforts to protect and safeguard girls’ rights are strengthened, there is a risk that a whole generation of girls in Syria will enter adulthood without having had the opportunity to go to school, become economically independent or contribute meaningfully to society – with profound consequences for wider society, peace building and long-term development.”
Notes to editors