WEST BEKAA, Lebanon — Fourteen-year-old Salwa chugged the bleach for as long as she could. She ignored the agonizing burn going from her throat to stomach. She tuned out the sound of gunfire outside her kitchen window. It wasn’t the Syrian war she was trying to escape. It was her marriage.
Her 27-year-old husband was drunk again and wanted to have sex. If she said no, he’d beat her — drag her around the floor by her hair, slam her head against the wall or whip her with his belt. So she said she’d be right back and poisoned herself.
“I returned to the bedroom and thought, this will be the last time,” said Salwa. But she didn’t die.
“When I woke up the next morning, I said, ‘F*ck you, God.’”
Salwa, whose name has been changed for her protection, is now 20 years old. She is a refugee — and one of the more than 40 percent of Syrian girls in Lebanon forced into early marriage due to the Syrian civil war, according to UNICEF. That’s nearly double the rate of early marriage in Lebanon since the crisis began.
Marriage is seen as a way to protect girls from sexual assault — and give parents one less mouth to feed. In fact, Lebanon’s struggling economy, coupled with the United Nations’ shortage of aid, can leave refugees desperate for a dowry.
“In many respects, girls are seen as a commodity,” said Fiona Carr, a spokesperson for Girls Not Brides, an international NGO dedicated to ending child marriage. “It’s like, where can I place this? For some parents, getting a dowry is a high commodity, so they’ll place her with the highest bidder.”
What parents don’t realize, though, is child brides are at a higher risk of being raped, getting HIV, dropping out of school and continuing a life of poverty, according to Girls Not Brides. And many become depressed, or, as in Salwa’s case, suicidal.
On July 3, the Syrian government called on refugees to return, saying it has successfully cleared large areas of “terrorists.” But for many refugee girls in Lebanon, the damage is already done. The crisis has forced them into marriage — and there’s no turning back.
The economics of early marriage
Fourteen-year-old Zeina was scared of the 53-year-old Lebanese man, who had white hair and a big belly. But he was about to become her husband.
She’d only seen him once, while they were both visiting her neighbor in West Bekaa — an area of Lebanon where 47% of Syrian girls are married. Zeina served the adults tea, he looked her up and down, and a week later showed up to her apartment asking for her hand. Zeina begged her parents to say no. But he offered a better life and a $5,000 dowry.
Nine months later, a sheikh walked in while she was doing the dishes. He asked if she’d marry the stranger. Reluctantly, she said yes. Her husband was waiting in the car. They drove to his house in silence. He raped her that night — and every night after.
“I wasn’t living in a marriage,” says Zeina — not her real name — now 17, as she breastfeeds her 7-month-old daughter. “I was always afraid of what would happen when he’d get home at night. I was always shocked, stressed and waiting for something bad.”
I was always afraid of what would happen when he’d get home at night
But her family, like many struggling refugees, needed the dowry.
Zeina is one of approximately 1.5 million Syrians, according to the Lebanese government, who have fled to Lebanon since the war began in 2011. They’ve found safety in the third-world country — but also a struggling economy.
Unemployment is so bad that Lebanon has created a rule: Syrians can only work in agriculture, construction and cleaning — all low-paying, temporary jobs. As a result, 76% of refugees registered with the United Nations live below the poverty line — on less than $3.84 per day.
Suzanne Farrah was 14 when her family fled to Lebanon. Her father had been killed by the Islamic State terror group in Syria — meaning their source of income was gone. So she did the only thing she knew would help her family survive: got married.
“My mom didn’t have enough money to support the family,” said Farrah, now 17. “In my heart, I didn’t want to get married. But when I looked at our circumstances, I thought it would be better.”
Refugees have one saving grace: aid from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). But the organization can’t keep up with the overwhelming number of refugees — so it’s making cuts.
Right now, it’s giving monthly cash support (about $175) to 198,000 refugees. That’s just 13% of the Syrians in Lebanon. This year, the UNHCR appeal for Lebanon is $462 million — and it’s only 10% funded.
“If humanitarian aid is decreasing, families find themselves more vulnerable,” said Jihane Latrous of UNICEF. “And then they find themselves in situations where they have to send their kids to work, or girls to get married, or survival sex.”
A choice between rape and rape
Ironically, it’s the fear of sexual assault that often drives parents to marry off their daughters.
When Syrian soldiers entered Idlib, Syria, in December 2016, Fadia Ammar Al Mohamad’s father couldn’t wait any longer. He signed papers to marry off the 14-year-old to a cousin in Lebanon she’d never met.
“We heard the army was raping girls in front of their fathers and then killing the whole family,” Al Mohamad said. “My parents were afraid I would get raped.”
We heard the army was raping girls in front of their fathers and then killing the whole family. My parents were afraid I would get raped
Now, more than ever, Syrian girls are vulnerable to sexual assault. In some Middle Eastern cultures, girls who have sex before marriage are shamed — even if they’re raped. So marriage can save a girl’s virginity and, by extension, her family’s reputation.
In Syria, armed groups use rape as a weapon of war to panic and intimidate people. And in Lebanon, refugees are more likely to get sexually harassed.
“A landlord, for example, sees families who can’t pay rent and may decide to say, ‘OK, you can’t pay me money for the rent, but you can engage in sexual relationships with me,’” Latrous said. “As a way to protect their daughters, it’s a choice out of desperation that some families choose to marry them off.”
But once a girl is married, she often has traumatic sexual experiences within her own marriage.
The vulnerability of young brides
Seventeen-year-old Halima Ali Al Hussein avoided having sex with her 42-year-old husband for a month and a half.
For him, it was a month and a half too long.
He had a wife and kids in Syria, but wanted a second wife to keep him company in Dubai, where he just started a new job. So he visited a refugee settlement in Taanayel, Lebanon, spotted Al Hussein and asked her father for her hand.
At that time, Al Hussein was the breadwinner of her family. Her mom had recently died, and her dad couldn’t work due to an injury. So she picked potatoes in the field 10 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week, to provide for her eight siblings.
She thought marrying the stranger would make life easier. But she wound up entering a life of mental and sexual abuse.
“The first time, he forced me,” Al Hussein, now 21, recalls. “It was like a fight between us. I was screaming, ‘Leave me!’ He said, ‘You are my wife. You will do it because I waited a month and a half.’”
Girls below 18 are more likely to be victims of domestic violence than women. And the wider the age difference, the more likely they’ll be abused, according to Human Rights Watch.
All of the nine girls interviewed for this story said they’d been forced or felt pressured to have sex with their husbands.
“During relations, there was no love,” Al Hussein said. “I would just close my eyes. Until now, I’m afraid of marriage.”
Then, there’s psychological abuse.
Al Hussein said her husband would lock her inside the apartment every day while he was at work. Then, he’d come home and talk on the phone.
“I’d want to talk and ask, ‘How was your day?’” she said. “He’d say, ‘Don’t talk until I tell you to.’”
Al Hussein thought having a baby could solve their problems. When she pitched the idea, he said no — he had married her solely for entertainment.
At that moment, Al Hussein decided to leave him. She felt empowered and strong and free. She didn’t realize, though, divorcing her husband would ruin her reputation.
Blaming the bride who leaves
As Al Hussein, now 21 years old, tells her story, she sits in her family’s hut in Taanayel. Her father says she can only leave this stuffy room, made of cloth walls, when she has to work. Otherwise, because she’s no longer a virgin, people may think she’s going to talk to men.
“My siblings asked, ‘Why did you come back? Because you were a bad wife, that’s why,’” she said. “My dad was blaming me, saying I should have solved the problem and stayed with him.”
Zeina, the Syrian who married a 53-year-old, is dealing with a similar problem.
Two years into her marriage, she got pregnant. Her husband’s family was livid because they didn’t want a Syrian child to inherit their land, she says. So her husband told her father she cheated and the child wasn’t his.
They beat me with a belt while I was pregnant
“They beat me with a belt while I was pregnant,” she says as she points to welts on her arms and back.
Zeina delivered the baby girl last year, and her husband — who refuses to legally divorce her — has yet to see them. With the help of a local NGO, Zeina did a DNA test and found out the baby is his.
With no one to help the single 17-year-old mom, she struggles to feed her daughter. She recently went to court, saying she needs her husband to at least pay for diapers.
“After I went to court, his friends threatened my mom,” Zeina said. “They said if I go to court one more time, they will hurt our whole family.”
And then there’s Salwa. When she told her husband she wanted a divorce, he took their four children, moved out and barely allows her to see them.
Suicides and cover-ups
Halima’s death certificate says she fell down the stairs. But according to an NGO working with Syrian refugees across Lebanon, including Halima’s camp, the 13-year-old actually killed herself.
It started one night in October, when she ran away from her abusive husband at a refugee camp outside Beirut. She fled back to her family and asked if they’d help her divorce him. No way, was their answer, she had to stay with him. So, that night, Halima overdosed on pills.
Staff at the NGO, which asked that its named not be used because of the sensitivity of its work, has noticed how common suicide has become among child brides — and how often families lie about it.
“They cannot admit the decision they made led to this result,” said a former spokesperson for the NGO. “What happens often is girls disappear completely. We know it’s a consequence of the marriage, but we don’t have any data or news from her. And the family says they don’t know anything.”
Although early marriage has existed for centuries, few studies show its psychological impact. That’s not because child brides aren’t deeply depressed and lonely — it’s because they’re not talking about it.
“If you’ve been forced into a marriage you don’t want, and once you’re in the marriage, you’re forced to have sex when you don’t want to have sex, you may not give voice to any feelings,” Carr said. “Because as far as you’re aware, no one cares about what you think.”
Hasan Arfeh, a Syrian journalist, has noticed the same trend in Syria.
When word got out that a young bride in rural Idlib, Syria, hanged herself in February of 2017, Arfeh launched an investigation. He found four other girls had killed themselves in that area since being forced to get married.
He also realized why suicide is so rarely reported among Syrian child brides: the stigma around it.
“Parents know their daughter committed suicide, but in small communities in Syria, they hide the issue,” Arfeh said. “They feel ashamed of the community around them. They do not offer the body to the forensic doctor, claiming it is the body of a girl and they have the right not to show it.”
Parents know their daughter committed suicide, but in small communities in Syria, they hide the issue
Layal, whose name has also been changed, was six months into her marriage when she tried to kill herself. The 16-year-old Syrian refugee jumped into a river in Baalbak, Lebanon, knowing she couldn’t swim. But her sister saved her.
“I thought, ‘I want to die. It’s better than living this miserable life,’” she said.
I thought, ‘I want to die. It’s better than living this miserable life,’
Her father fled to Lebanon with 17 kids and couldn’t provide for them all. So he married her off to a 31-year-old who was financially stable — but also abusive.
Layal says one day, he used a broom to hit her on the head. He whacked her so many times she passed out, waking up on the floor hours later, bleeding from her skull. It was then she decided to try to end her life.
Hope in short supply
Layal sometimes can’t remember where she lives, or how old she is. Her husband, who she’s since divorced, beat her so many times on the head that she now suffers from short-term memory loss, her mother says.
In October, Layal got a rare opportunity to see a psychologist.
One morning, Amira Deeb, a social worker with the Lebanese Women’s Democratic Gathering (RDFL) — an NGO funded by UNICEF — went to Layal’s camp, looking for refugees in need of emotional support.
Layal immediately asked for counseling. But her mother said no — she was afraid of her daughter leaving the camp without a man.
Most international aid organizations focus on getting refugees food, shelter and clothing — not emotional support. And even the ones that do have trouble reaching child brides.
UNICEF has 10 partners across Lebanon that target women and girls at risk of gender-based violence. In 2017, those partners helped reach more than 60,000 women and girls, says Latrous. But Deeb says that doesn’t mean girls are opening up as deeply as they want.
“Yes we have this program, we offer education, activities, psychologists and even legal help, but they’re not helpful,” Deeb said. “If we try to take the girls from where they are living, their husbands or brothers or fathers or mothers make a big problem. These girls can’t be saved.”
Also, there’s only so much NGOs can accomplish without help from the Lebanese government.
Lebanon has no minimum age for marriage. Instead, the country leaves it up to religious parties to decide.
Furthermore, Lebanon doesn’t criminalize marital rape. In fact, a husband can only get in trouble if his wife is physically hurt during rape and needs 10 days to recover. In that case, he faces a fine between $6.66 and $33, or a maximum of six months in prison.
For now, NGOs like RDFL continue to go into camps and try to do what they can — offer girls, who get permission from their husbands and fathers — a chance to simply talk.
“When we go to the field, I see something in these girls’ eyes,” Deeb said. “They will not say it, but when I look in the eyes of any one of these girls, I see they are telling us, ‘Please, can you help us and take us out of this life forever?’”