Supporting married girls in refugee and Lebanese communities

In Lebanon, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) works to empower married and engaged adolescent girls in the Bekaa Valley, a region that hosts a large number of refugees from Syria and where child marriage is widespread.

Married girls are quite often invisible, with little access to the education, services or support they need. Our project seeks to change that.

Using evidence to meet the needs of married and engaged girls

When we reviewed our adolescent girls programme in 2015, we felt we could do a better job for married and engaged girls in refugee and Lebanese communities.

So we conducted a study to understand their needs and the challenges they face. We spoke to girls, their husbands, their parents and their in-laws. What we learned helped us develop the “Life Skills Package for Early Marriage”.

Over several months, we share vital information and skills with Syrian and Lebanese girls who are married or engaged to improve their wellbeing and resilience to violence in their lives.

The International Rescue Committee turned their research findings into an interactive story told from the perspective of a married girl in the Bekaa region of Lebanon.

Bringing adolescent girls together in a safe space

So how does it work? Over three to four months, married and engaged girls meet regularly in a safe space. Often, they quickly develop solidarity with one another, especially as they share similar backgrounds, experiences and vulnerabilities.

Having that safe space allows them to build their confidence, increase their self-esteem and find a strong support network.

Over the course of three to four months, married or engaged girls learn about a variety of topics, including violence, financial literacy and decision making.

“I gave birth […] before the sessions […] ended. It was amazing to see how much support I got from my friends. They all visited me and helped me take care of the baby and they were always sharing with me the information they learned in the sessions. I am so happy we are still friends now and we always meet and help each other.” – Hoda, Syrian, 17 years old.

 We also make sure we have a child care volunteer in the room, so that if a young mother wants to bring along her children, she can do so safely and comfortably.

 Helping married girls challenge gender inequality

Marriage often ends girls’ opportunities for education, better paid work, and decision making roles in their communities. That is why we encourage girls to explore other roles for themselves through our sessions on gender inequality, decision-making in the home, and healthy relationships.

“I used to live with my husband and his family and it was crowded in the tent. I wanted to ask my husband to move out but I was very shy. Rihab [a case worker] helped me use the negotiation skills we learned to discuss the issue with my husband and it worked. We moved to a smaller tent alone and it is nicer and safer.” – Samar, Syrian, 16 years old.

The friendships that girls build during the programme are vital to their self-confidence and well-being.

Empowering married girls to lead more fulfilling lives

From limited mobility to time constraints or safety concerns, married girls face a number of barriers in accessing information and services that are available to them.

That is why we come to them. Our sessions are held in spaces close to their homes so that time or geographic constraints don’t prevent them from attending.

Our curriculum covers topics that married girls may have questions about: sexual and reproductive health, pregnancy care, or family planning. We also look at the importance of registering births and marriages, as well as managing money.

And when they need it, we refer married girls to service providers in the region.

Girl draws a mother and her child

Engaging the husbands of married girls

The programme is not without its challenges. When we first started reaching out to communities, some men were resistant and sceptical of what we were trying to achieve.

Without their husbands on board, girls are unlikely to take part in the programme. So we had to make sure we were also talking to them. Now, we have a male community mobilisation worker who approaches men early on and builds trust with them and the community at large.

The impact so far

The programme is paying off. Girls who participated have told us they felt more confident, less isolated and more able to negotiate with their husbands.

But more research is needed to understand how to meet the needs of married girls, who are one of the most marginalised and stigmatised groups among girls. With the right support, they can lead better lives.

IRC’s work with adolescent girls is supported by United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), European Commission Humanitarian Aid (ECHO) and Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC).

For more details about the programme and lessons learned, read our case study.