Brita Fernandez Schmidt reflects on World Refugee Day and the effects of displacement on women and girls.
This World Refugee Day, I will be thinking of Fryal, a 20-year-old Yezidi woman I met on a recent visit to Iraq. She told me how she escaped the massacre of her people by ISIS and came to live at Khanke camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). It was supposed to be temporary, but the overcrowded tent, which she shares with her parents, 5 brothers and 5 sisters, has been her home for five years now.
Fryal’s parents arrived at the camp during the summer of 2014 with barely any possessions, no source of income, and 11 children to feed. They were plunged into a precarious existence. That’s when, as the eldest daughter, 15-year-old Fryal encountered yet another obstacle to the future she had dreamt of:
My cousin asked me if I wanted to get married, because I was of the age to do it… I had a lot of pressure from my family.
Fryal resisted, and eventually her parents backed down. When I met her in the spring of 2019, she was helping to provide and care for her younger siblings and still dreaming of becoming a school teacher. But many other girls in her situation are wives and mothers by 15.
During my visit, I attended a social empowerment class for Iraqi and Syrian women living in situations of long-term displacement in Iraq, run by Women for Women International. The trainer – a local Iraqi woman – explained the devastating consequences of early marriage. Girls are exposed to violence and abuse, face life-threatening complications bearing children before their bodies are developed, and are cut off from education and economic opportunities, creating ripple effects of poverty and inequality.
Of 25 women in the class, the majority said they were married by 18. This practice was already common before the war; one woman had been promised to her husband as a baby. However, the extreme pressures of life as a refugee or IDP were leading more and more families to opt for early marriage for their daughters. Women spoke about girls in their communities being married off at 14 to 40-year-old men. This is one of the underreported and unaddressed issues facing IDP and refugee girls.
One woman voiced a common belief that marriage keeps teenage girls safe and prevents them from ‘getting into trouble’.
The threat of their daughters being subjected to sexual violence and bringing shame on their families was cited as a major driver.
The other overriding reason was financial. Many families are so poor that they marry their daughters to get their dowry and have one less mouth to feed. When jobs are scarce and opportunities for women to bring resources into the family are minimal, it can seem like the only option.
As a mother of two teenage girls myself, listening to women forced to make such a decision is unbearable – especially when it is driven by the need to provide food, clothes and healthcare for their other children.
At the heart of the problem are deeply engrained social norms about gender that see girls as a financial burden, a piece of property, and a risk to her family’s honour as soon as she reaches puberty. These attitudes play out amid the insecurity, poverty and trauma of displacement.
The result is an alarming epidemic of violence against women and girls. Child marriage rates are estimated to be four times higher among Syrian refugees today than among Syrians before the crisis, while Iraq’s has jumped from 15% to 24% in the past two decades of instability.
It may seem like an insurmountable problem, but I saw during my time in Iraq that providing access to information and fostering discussion changes attitudes remarkably fast. In the class I attended, women did shift their mindset and several committed to not marrying their daughters before the age of 18.
Of course, women alone cannot eradicate deep-seated gender inequalities. Men also need engaging and educating about the harmful effects of early marriage and other forms of gender-based violence.
Male leaders have the power to speak out against child marriage and influence community attitudes; fathers can make more informed, collaborative decisions about their daughters’ futures.
The Iraqi and Syrian women I met are dealing with violence at many levels on a daily basis – violence that is seen as a normal fact of life. Once they have reached a place of safety from enemy soldiers, their lives and bodies are still being fought over; their futures remain out of their control.
Gender equality is not a ‘women’s issue’ that can be deprioritised at times of crisis.
Effective support for refugees and IDPs, that builds long-term stability and resilience, cannot ignore the proliferation of harmful and discriminatory practices that are preventing women from living healthy, secure and fulfilled lives.
The challenge is immense. But what I have repeatedly seen during ten years visiting conflict-affected countries gives me hope. I’ve seen women coming together and realising they are not alone; supporting each other to challenge oppressive norms; and enacting changes that will have a big impact on their own and their children’s lives.
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