This morning, when my daughter woke up, she was safe. She rolled out of bed, had breakfast, and texted her friends on the way to school. She was thinking of her driver’s test next week, softball practice that afternoon and a trip to the mall. Typical middle-class, suburban teenager day in the U.S. – school, friends, sports. No one will bully her because she was taught to stand up for herself. The most significant problem she will face today is finding time to do her homework after practice.
This morning, in Syria, another teenage daughter woke up. She was not safe. The sounds of gunfire and angry voices filled the night until she fell into a troubled sleep. Curled up on a pallet laid out on a concrete floor, she rose to the cries of her baby daughter. Her face was swollen from the beating she took from her husband. It wasn’t his fault – he can’t find a job and money is scarce. She will try harder to make life easy for him so the beatings will stop. The most significant problem she will face today is finding enough food to cook for her family.
Two different scenarios a world apart cause great concern in the MENA region. Rather than a childhood and an education, young girls are being forced to marry due to poor economic conditions and increased sexual harassment. According to a census done by UNICEF, approximately 1 out of 5 girls across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) marry before the age of 18. Many different factors contribute to young marriages including gender inequality, poverty levels and lack of higher education for girls. Also, the devastating conditions brought on by the Syrian crisis have led families to resort to child marriage.
In times of hardship, families are overwhelmed as their homes, livelihoods and families are endangered. For many parents, giving their daughters in marriage is a way to cope with economic hardship or to protect her from the threat of sexual violence. A recent UNICEF study found that approximately 30% of registered marriages in Syrian refugee communities in Jordan involved a girl under 18.
“An estimated 30% of ever-partnered women in the Middle East and North Africa region have experienced physical violence by intimate partners at some point in their lives, while one in seven girls is married as a child with the highest rates in Mauritania, Sudan, and the Yemen,” said Blerta Aliko, deputy regional director of Arab states at UN Women.
Will the trend continue? Many young MENA brides do not want the same fate for their daughters. The International Centre for Research on Women, the leading research institute on child marriage, recommends the following strategies to prevent child marriage.
Empower girls with information, skills and support networks. SAT-7 programs, like Needle and New Thread, help empower women to learn necessary skills so that they can become more knowledgeable and self-confident in refusing unwanted marriage.
- Provide economic support and incentives to girls and their families. Approaches that enhance the financial security of poor households can aid in curbing child marriage. Daughters who learn skills that enable them to earn an income in the future may add more value to the family.
- Educate and rally parents and community members. Families and community elders are traditionally responsible for deciding when and who a girl marries. Educating them on how child marriage impacts a girl’s health and future often sparks powerful change.
- Enhance girls’ access to an education. Girls with no education are three times more likely to marry before 18 than those with secondary and higher education.
- Encourage supportive laws and policies. Advocating for the implementation of laws and raising awareness among community leaders helps strengthen and enforce existing initiatives around girls’ rights.
It is humbling to think that two babies, born the same year but a world apart, could learn such different human rights, responsibilities, and educational opportunities. I look at my daughter and reflect on her future with pride. She has a lifetime of opportunities to explore.
I then think about the teenager forced into marriage and her limited future. She is a Mom living in squalor conditions, fighting for survival, feeling hopeless, alone and unworthy. The need for change is immediate: provide education, economic support, and empowerment through SAT-7 channels so that these young women can provide their children with better future.