Fifteen Syrian women who fled to neighboring Lebanon because of the Syrian conflict are taking up the fight against an increasing issue among young Syrian female refugees: dropping out of school and getting married.
The women, who live in the Arsal refugee camp in northern Lebanon, have established Women's Social Rally to empower women and girls in such camps by helping them handle the burden of war and displacement.
Supported by Lebanese aid workers and specialists, the team seeks to raise awareness among the refugees to avoid child marriage and keep girls in school.
Radwa Hassoun, the head of the women's network, told VOA that women, particularly young girls, have paid the heaviest price of the war in Syria's patriarchal society and continue to be vulnerable in refugee camps. Hassoun says she hopes her team can help ease the burden by empowering women to take matters into their own hands and address the daily issues they are encountering.
"We noticed that domestic violence is on the rise among the refugees," Hassoun said. "Most importantly, there is an increase in the rates of child marriage and school dropouts, especially among young girls. Therefore, we decided to work together within the camp to combat this crisis."
The Lebanese border town of Arsal, in the Bekaa Valley, is home to at least 6,000 Syrian refugee families. Aid groups say the refugees struggle to cope as they lack basic services.
Hassoun said harsh conditions have forced many families to pull their children out of schools and marry off their young girls as a way to escape their financial burden.
Throughout the Arsal camp, Women's Social Rally works to spread awareness among girls and their families by organizing campaigns, Hassoun added.
The group also provides psychological support for survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse, in addition to documenting violations and registering marriages, divorces and births.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, more than 560,000 civilians, including women and children, have been killed and 2 million injured. The war has also displaced more than 12 million Syrians, with about half fleeing mainly to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Authorities in Beirut estimate nearly 1.5 million Syrian refugees are in Lebanon.
According to Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of civil society groups from 95 countries working to end child marriage, about 41% of Syrian female refugees in Lebanon married when they were under 18. It predicts many other child marriages remain undocumented given that many of these unions are not registered.
"Child marriage is the biggest challenge we are trying to face. Many of these marriages end up with divorce and young girls find themselves with children they need to take care of, and this will result in a broken family," Hassoun said.
She said her team of activist women desperately needs a safe house where it can host abused women and their children who have been disowned by their families.
According to the Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, a report published in 2018 by the World Food Program (WFP), 69% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are living below the poverty line, while female-headed households remain more vulnerable than ones headed by males.
"Child marriage remains a concern, with three in 10 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 currently married, a notable increase of 7% from 2017," the report said.
The United Nations considers child marriage a human rights violation that threatens a girl's health and prevents her from fulfilling her potential.
Himaya, a Lebanon-based NGO that provides school programming on child abuse, self-protection and rehabilitation, has found that a majority of girls in Syrian refugee camps are married by their parents, in most cases without their knowledge.
In one case, during one of their psychosocial sessions investigating child marriage among Syrian refugees, Himaya workers interviewed a 12-year-old girl named Sarah who accidentally learned about her father's plan to marry her off in order to repay his debts.
"Sarah told us that she didn't want to marry and that she wanted to stay in school. But her family's financial problems caused her to feel guilty and responsible," Lama Yazbeck, the executive director of Himaya, told VOA.
Yazbeck said that they were able to keep Sarah in school and eventually persuade her father not to marry off his daughter at such an early age.
"Early marriage will take its toll on girls' overall state, especially when they haven't fully grown physically, mentally, emotionally and psychologically. Early marriage will also hinder girls from their rights of engaging and participating in their lives," Yazbeck warned.