Conflict in Syria: child marriage in the midst of a humanitarian crisis

Syrian refugee with her child in 2013. | Photo credit: Oxfam Italia | Giada Connestari

Dr. Lama Mouakea has been the Executive Director of the Syrian Family Planning Association for the last 19 years, and has a long history of developing sexual and reproductive health services.

The conflict in Syria has brought devastation to lives of millions of women, men and children. Though the Syrian refugee crisis has dominated world headlines over the past couple of years, the humanitarian crises facing those who have been left behind remains largely neglected. As parents face increasing poverty, desperation and uncertainty in Syria the number of girls getting married under the age of 18 has increased dramatically.

These young women, and indeed women in general in Syria, receive little guidance or support with regards to their sexual health and reproductive planning, which often means many become pregnant at an early age. The organisation I work for – the Syrian Family Planning Association (SFPA) – delivers sexual and reproductive health services and with the financial support from IPPF (International Planned Parenthood Federation), UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund), and WHO ( World Health Organization) we have developed vital grassroots services and reproductive health programmes for communities in Syria.

“Poverty and insecurity and now the conflict are common reasons for child marriage because families no longer see any alternative but marriage for their daughters.”

At present, SFPA have static clinics and mobile clinics situated all over Syria which provide reproductive health services to the community. The mobile health clinics not only support those needing reproductive health care, but also refers women to safe spaces for vocational training created by SFPA, so they are able to get work and generate their own independent source of income.

Reaching women and young girls can be incredibly challenging; because of the ongoing conflict, many families now live in shelters, whilst others live within tight communities. These are the ones who are harder to reach which makes building trust with local communities even more important. This is why we go into the community to reach women and girls, rather than expecting people to come and find us.

“Efforts such as these enables displaced individuals to seek alternatives and better solutions to their situation. They open the door to a better future for families, even through times of humanitarian crises.”

In Syria, poverty and insecurity and now the conflict are common reasons for child marriage because families no longer see any alternative but marriage for their daughters. Marriage is viewed as one of the only safe methods of providing protection for young girls and women. Roughly six months ago, a woman who regularly attends the clinic came along with her teenage daughter.

The family’s home had been destroyed during the conflict, and the mother could no longer afford to keep her daughter fed and safe. Her daughter was only 15 years old when her mother began trying to persuade her to marry.

Fortunately, her daughter knew about the vocational training courses offered by our organisation and asked to join in order to avoid marriage. Since then, she has been trained as a seamstress sewing, and when she finished her course the United Nations Development Programme offered her a place on their microfinance project.

Efforts such as these enables displaced individuals to seek alternatives and better solutions to their situation. They open the door to a better future for families, even through times of humanitarian crises.

Having spent several decades working in Syria on sexual health programmes and in hospitals, it is very clear that there is a link between child marriage and a lack of viable alternatives for families and their daughters, such as education and livelihoods.

It is also very clear that the best people to reach communities and families who are struggling are grassroots organisations, but this can only continue with support from donors and a recognition of the important role grassroot organisations, such as ours, can play.