With no end in sight to Syria’s conflict, some refugees in Jordan are offering their daughters for early marriage in the hope of securing them protection as they face growing economic pressure.
Syrian refugee Abu Mohammad says he reluctantly opted to marry off his teenage daughter to a rich 40-year-old Saudi man, hoping to give her a better life and ease his family’s financial hardships.
“It was the last thing I wanted to do,” Abu Mohammad, 50, told AFP outside his tent at the northern Zaatari refugee camp, home to more than 160,000 Syrians -- equal in size to what would be Jordan’s fifth-largest city.
“This big prison we live in. It’s unbearable,” said Abu Mohammad.
The father of six said that his daughter’s Saudi husband “promised to help us until the crisis ends and we go home,” after the marriage three months ago.
“God knows when this is going to happen,” he said.
Dominique Hyde, representative of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Jordan, told AFP that it was not clear how widely spread early marriages were, but that there were signs it was taking place.
“Information gathered during assessments and monitoring visits do reveal incidents of forced and early marriage,” she said.
“Forced and early marriage is a human rights and a public health problem.”
According to Interior Minister Hussein Majali, the authorities have recorded 1,029 marriages between Jordanian men and Syrian women since refugees started to flee to the kingdom in 2011.
“Non-Jordanian men have married 331 Syrian women. These figures are within normal range,” Majali said.
Jordan says it is hosting at least 500,000 Syrians. More than 70 percent of the refugees are women and children, according to the UN figures.
“Jordanians and other Arabs frequently come to ask me about Syrian refugee women to marry,” said Fares Hosha, a 42-year-old former post office employee who now owns a shop selling household appliances.
“Two men from outside Zaatari recently asked the same question. One customer told them he has two daughters. The three left the shop together and I don’t know what happened later.”
Hosha thought that refugees accept such “urgent unconditional marriages because they fear the unknown and want to make sure their daughters are safe.”
‘Hidden slavery and sex trade’
Said’s daughters, aged 15 and 16, got married a month ago.
“I am jobless, paraplegic and I cannot support my family,” said the father-of-10.
“What can I do? The camp is a dangerous place and I feared for my daughters. I felt marriage was the solution.”
Jordanian law allows girls under the age of 18 to marry with court approval.
If the court rules the marriage is in the girl’s best interests, she may marry as young as 15, according to UNICEF, which encourages courts to uphold the minimum legal age of marriage at 18 for boys and girls.
Zayed Hammad, head of the Ketab and Sunna Society, which provides aid to tens of thousands of refugees, said his charity receives dozens of requests from men to help them find brides in Zaatari.
“We are a relief group and we want to focus on our job. We do not want to be involved in this issue, which could create problems,” he told AFP.
On the main street in Zaatari, Abu Ahmad opened a wedding shop six months ago.
“When I came here, I thought that opening the shop was a good idea,” the 40-year-old bearded man said, as a couple looked at wedding dresses.
They refused to talk to AFP.
“Each day I rent at least one wedding dress for around 20 Jordanian dinars ($28, or 21 euros).”
“In all emergencies we know that women and girls are at increased risk of exploitation,” she said.
“Syrians have reported that though early marriage was common in Syria prior to the crisis there have been changes in practices since their arrival in Jordan. Most notably, wide spousal age gaps.”
A group of Syrian activists, calling themselves the National Campaign for the Protection of Syrian Women are trying to fight these marriages, and have set up a Facebook page which has more than 20,000 followers.
“Syrian women are not slaves. We cannot remain silent about such hidden slavery and sex trade,” they said on their page.
“Calls for these marriages by Arabs from the Gulf and other regions are motivated by purely sexual instincts.”
Some Syrian refugees have defended early marriages.
Former security official Said Hariri, 60, said that early marriages are not unusual.
“In our traditions it is normal that a girl gets married at the age of 16. If a girl is 20 and still single, people will call her a spinster,” he said.
“I got married when I was 17. You should understand why some parents decide to marry off their daughters at young age, particularly under our current circumstances.”
But Hyde disagrees.
“Whatever the context, such exploitation is preying on the most vulnerable and is not acceptable,” she said