Lebanon: The problem of child marriage

Lebanon: The problem of child marriage
Underage marriage continues to destroy childhoods in Lebanon as families cling to customs and social traditions.
4 min read
30 December, 2014
Girls are married off with little respect for their rights [Getty]
Many families in Lebanon marry their daughters when they are minors with no consideration for their rights.

Some say their priority is adherence to social customs and traditions and to "protect" the girls from "getting into trouble". They do this even if it comes at their own expense - and destroys the young girls' lives.

According to a Unicef report, more than 700 million women alive today were married before the age of 18. In 2009, Unicef said six percent of Lebanese women had married before they had reached the age of 18.

     In 2009, Unicef said six percent of Lebanese women had married before they had reached the age of 18.

The Lebanon-based women's rights NGO Abaad works with Unicef and receives EU funding. It recently released a short animated film named "Marriage is not a game".

The film tells the story of a young girl who is married to an older man. After the wedding she is stopped from going to school or seeing her friends. Her toys are thrown out and replaced with cooking utensils. The girl then has a child of her own. The film ends with a set of questions and outlines the positive reasons to ban child marriage.

Mariam and Asma

As a child, Mariam - not her real name - was deprived of an education, abused by her father and kept locked inside her family home. She only saw the outside world through a small window in her bedroom. To escape the daily beatings she married a young unemployed man and lived with him and his family.

Mariam admits it was a mistake. The physiological and physical abuse started on the first day of her marriage.

"He used to insult me. I tried to act like a woman but I couldn't. I wanted to play outside," she told al-Araby al-Jadeed. "The hardest times were when I was forced to be a servant for his brother's children. Sometimes, I would play with them."

When she could no longer bear her husband's beatings she returned to her parents' home where her father welcomed her with a savage thrashing. Hours later she tried to kill herself, but neighbours called the police. She was taken to a women's refuge run in conjunction with the Bureau for the Protection of Juveniles which looks after victims of underage marriage.

Today, Mariam is happy. She wears pink, which she loves, and walks confidently. She is waiting to sign her divorce papers so she can start a new life.

Asma grew up in an orphanage where she was beaten and frequently reminded she had been found in a garbage dump. When she turned 14, the mangers of the orphanage forced her to marry a 28-year-old man who treated her badly.
Watch 'Marriage is not a game' [Abaad/Unicef]

A year later she had a baby girl and Asma thought things would get better, but her husband eventually kicked her out and stopped her from seeing her daughter. Her only choice was to return to the orphanage - but it would not accept her because she was married.

She was forced to sleep on the streets and work as a prostitute to survive. One night she was arrested and ended up in juvenile prison because of her age. Eventually she was sent to the same Safe House for Women and Girls as Mariam, where she is recovering from her traumatic past.

The Safe House

The Safe House for Women and Girls organises activities to support survivors of child marriage as well as women who have been abused by their husbands or family members. It obtains restraining orders against any relatives who threaten or intimidate its residents.

Lama Najjar, who is head of coordination and communication for Abaad, said the safe house looks after young women for four months at a time and tries to boost their self-confidence and help them face their troubles. A court's decision may be taken to extend their stay if needed. The women are then moved to other associations who can provide further support.

Najjar explained that it is difficult for many of the girls to obtain a divorce because their marriages were not registered in the courts. She also outlines the need for well-trained social workers to help the girls.

"You have to recognise that the girl is a victim. You have to be patient, listen to her, respect her feelings and understand her," she said.

"The girls are lost, they laugh then cry. Sometimes they engage in self-harm. What they are suffering from is bigger than them."

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.