Seeking safety from rape, Syrian girls marrying earlier

ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan — Standing outside the refugee tent that has become her home, Qut al-Qukub al-Subayhi looked like a happy bride, posing with her new husband. She laughed when asked where the young couple had spent their honeymoon. “Here,” she said, pointing to the tent.

Qut is just 14 years old, and while teenage marriage is not uncommon in rural Syria, she’s younger than the norm — a peculiar side effect of that country’s raging civil war, where refugee parents facing economic hardship and fearing that their daughters will be sexually exploited are pushing them into earlier marriages.

“In Syria, between 15 and 16 is normal,” said Qut’s mother, Naima Abdel Kader. “Now, in this camp, 14 is normal.”

Before moving into the camp, Abdel Kader said she had rented an apartment in the nearby city of Irbid until her savings ran out. She has four daughters in addition to Qut, and she recalls that her brood quickly caught the attention of a Syrian woman who provided girls to Arabs visiting from Persian Gulf countries for both marriage and prostitution. That provided motivation for Abdel Kader to find a husband for Qut.

“Our daughters for our sons,” she said.

The same dynamic is also taking place inside Syria, say international aid workers. There, widespread sexual violence is a primary driver for families marrying off their daughters to protect them.

“Sexual violence has become commonplace to the point people have become pragmatic about it,” said Alina Potts, who works with the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit group that provides support to Syrian refugees.

She said a rescue committee survey had documented a trend of Syrian girls marrying at younger ages than was usual before the conflict.

“We talked to more than 120 Syrians in doing this assessment, and when we discussed this trend with people as it was occurring inside Syria, it was about honor, and in relation to it happening outside Syria, it was more about making money and meeting basic needs,” she said.

War and communal violence frequently make targets of women, and as international aid groups collect evidence from refugees in countries that border Syria, they say this conflict is no different. The rescue committee report, which was released this week, concluded that fear of sexual violence has been a major factor driving millions of Syrians from their homes.

Potts said the committee had surveyed Syrian refugees in both Jordan and Lebanon. “We found in both of the assessments in Lebanon and Jordan that women reported sexual violence occurring frequently and that was one of the main reasons they fled,” she said.

The allegations repeated in the rescue committee’s report included gang rape in front of family members.

Opposition activists and rebels have frequently accused the Syrian army and pro-government militia of carrying out systematic sexual violence both in combat zones and in government prisons. It’s less clear, however, the extent to which rebel forces have been implicated. In the general lawlessness of contested areas, it’s not difficult to believe that rape has become more common because of the breakdown in law and order, though most of the reporting focuses on abuses by government-aligned forces. The United Nations Human Rights Council’s International Commission of Inquiry is investigating allegations of conflict-related sexual violence in Syria, including allegations of government-directed violence.

“We don’t ask people about perpetrators, but we did see in a number of instances that women did want to share that information and spoke of armed actors,” Potts said.

Potts said that services often are not available to victims of sexual violence, another reason they often don’t come forward.

“We’re opening women’s and girls’ community centers in Bekaa and Akkar,” Potts said, referring to two cities in Lebanon. “These are safe spaces – they’re not the same as a shelter, but it’s really more like a community center where they can go and access support bases and learn skills.”

Talk to us

More in Local News

Cars move across Edgewater Bridge toward Everett on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023, in Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Edgewater Bridge redo linking Everett, Mukilteo delayed until mid-2024

The project, now with an estimated cost of $27 million, will detour West Mukilteo Boulevard foot and car traffic for a year.

Lynn Deeken, the Dean of Arts, Learning Resources & Pathways at EvCC, addresses a large gathering during the ribbon cutting ceremony of the new Cascade Learning Center on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023, at Everett Community College in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
New EvCC learning resource center opens to students, public

Planners of the Everett Community College building hope it will encourage students to use on-campus tutoring resources.

Everett Police Chief Dan Templeman announces his retirement after 31 years of service at the Everett City Council meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Everett police chief to retire at the end of October

Chief Dan Templeman announced his retirement at Wednesday’s City Council meeting. He has been chief for nine years.

Boeing employees watch the KC-46 Pegasus delivery event  from the air stairs at Boeing on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019 in Everett, Wa. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Boeing’s iconic Everett factory tour to resume in October

After a three-year hiatus, tours of the Boeing Company’s enormous jet assembly plant are back at Paine Field.

A memorial for a 15-year-old shot and killed last week is set up at a bus stop along Harrison Road on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Teen boy identified in fatal shooting at Everett bus stop

Bryan Tamayo-Franco, 15, was shot at a Hardeson Road bus stop earlier this month. Police arrested two suspects.

Car crashes into Everett apartment, displacing residents

No one was injured in the crash late Friday, according to Everett police.

Mike Bredstrand, who is trying to get back his job with Lake Stevens Public Works, stands in front of the department’s building on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, in Lake Stevens, Washington. Bredstrand believes his firing in July was an unwarranted act of revenge by the city. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Lake Stevens worker was fired after getting court order against boss

The city has reportedly spent nearly $60,000 on attorney and arbitration fees related to Mike Bredstrand, who wants his job back.

Chap Grubb, founder and CEO of second-hand outdoor gear store Rerouted, stands inside his new storefront on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023, in Gold Bar, Washington. Rerouted began as an entirely online shop that connected buyers and sellers of used gear.  (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Used outdoor gear shop Rerouted finds a niche in Gold Bar

Seeking to keep good outdoor gear out of landfills, an online reselling business has put down roots in Gold Bar.

Naval Station Everett. (Chuck Taylor / Herald file)
Everett man sentenced to 6 years for cyberstalking ex-wife

Christopher Crawford, 42, was found guilty of sending intimate photos of his ex-wife to adult websites and to colleagues in the Navy.

Most Read