"I became a widow at the age of 14," with these words Sidra started her interview with Rozana, hoping to return to school.
The father of 16-year-old Sidra was arrested when she was 10. “My family consists of eight members and I am the oldest among my siblings. We have been left with no breadwinner after my father's arrest. Circumstances forced me to get married to an 18-year old young man to find a breadwinner,” Sidra told Rozana.
She added: "Four months after my marriage, my husband died in the bombing.” She said with a broken heart: "I was deprived of my husband and father at an early age, my life is ruined."
She continued: "Society has been unfair with me because I am a widow. They have been keeping an eye on all my moves. I cannot do anything. I hope to work or go to school like all girls, but I cannot because of society, no one cares about me."
Underage marriage is not considered a newly emerging phenomenon in the Syrian society, but the circumstances of the war in the previous years have led to its gradual increase among young people in areas outside the regime’s control.
Widad Babiker, Head of the United Nations Population Fund's Anti Gender-Based Violence Program, announced last month that underage marriage had risen to 46 percent during the war in Syria, especially in ISIS-held areas.
Babiker explained that according to studies conducted by the United Nations Fund in many Syrian regions, the rate of increase of underage marriage has been rising, despite the decline before 2011. It used to be 13 percent at that time, and then has reached 46 percent at the present time, according to a report published by local newspaper al-Watan on 11 March.
"The phenomenon is 30 percent higher than before 2011, which is considered by some as a new crisis added to the crises emerging in Syria during the war years. This crisis often results in cases of family disintegration, the loss of the family component, and more importantly, the marriage of underage girls," stressed education official Fawaz Aslan to Rozana.
Before the 1953 amendments, the Syrian law used to allow the marriage of 17-year-old girls and 18-year-old young men. If the adolescent claims reaching adulthood after the age of 15, or the girl claims so after the age of 13, and they request to get married, the judge allows them after verifying their claims and their physical ability to get married, on condition of their parents’ consent.
With the expansion of the opposition-controlled areas, the citizens have started resorting to a Sharia marriage official to sign the marriage contract and to document its restrictions at the departments of the opposition’s civil institutions, if there are any.
Those who wish to register their marriage contracts at the civil courts of the Syrian regime can do so either in person or through offices that take in charge the citizens’ processes in the opposition areas.
No objection to marrying an underage girl as long as it is permitted by the Sharia
Ibrahim does not see a problem in his marriage to an underage girl as long as his marriage is permitted by the Sharia. "Whoever wants to complicate matters about marriage, I think it is his problem," he said in an interview with Rozana
Two years ago, 20-year old Ibrahim - a pseudonym- married a 4-year younger Syrian girl who fled with her family from Hama.
The girl's father told Rozana that he had agreed to this marriage under the pressure of the family's deteriorating financial situation. His daughter moved to live with Ibrahim in a small room in the house of her husband’s family.
Abdel Karim al-Mahmoud, one of the prominent citizens of Hurtah village in Hama, told Rozana that the phenomenon of underage marriage has been spreading in areas that have witnessed a population displacement, such as the countryside of Hama and Idlib. Fathers are thus forced to marry off their underage daughters under complicated circumstances.
The phenomenon of underage marriage had not been widespread in the countryside of Hama and Idlib before 2011, compared to recent years during the war.
Attorney Abdul Rahman al-Haj commented on this, saying: "The marriage has become much easier than it used to be before the Syrian revolution. This is because of absence of official processes and departments. The young man can thus marry at a young age, as long as he claims to be able to have children and carry out his duties in the family."
"In addition, there are no society and awareness organizations. There is no party what would advise young people about the dangers of underage marriages, especially for young girls, and the dangers of building a family on unstable foundations, some of which break down and can simply end with a divorce," al-Haj added.
In a report issued in October 2018, the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research pointed out that the phenomenon of marriage with underage girls has increased among arms owners for their ability to support and protect their families in areas out of the Syrian regime’s control. This is due to the economic siege and the areas’ subjection to bombings, resulting in the works’ disruption, the schools’ suspension or destruction, and the poverty’s increase.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued Law No. 4 of 2019 amending some articles of the Personal Status Law.
The law has allowed the marriage of a boy or girl after reaching the age of 18. In case the male or female adolescent claims reaching puberty after the completion of 15 years old, and he/she requests to get married, the judge allows this, provided he makes sure they are telling the truth, they are physically capable, and they are aware of marital rights.
Wife or an unpaid servant
Despite the obvious causes of marriage in many cases, some of them go beyond the concept of traditional marriage, turning the wife into an additional and unpaid laborer.
The Central Bureau of Statistics in Damascus mentioned in a statistical report in 2007 that there had been about 23 thousand Syrian female workers in the agriculture and forestry sector, as the third sector that attracts Syrian women, after the services and industry sectors.
"Tell Mannas is a rural area and most of the young people are illiterate. Parents there marry off their young men at an early age so that their wives can help them in agricultural work," said Mohammad Zaki al-Khatib, a traditional mayor from the town of Tell Mannas.
However, the head of the Salqin city added that "wives afford these young men the cost of a rented worker's salary, while they live in the family house" and therefore these young men would bear no costs in this regard.
UN official Babiker pointed out that the high rate of underage marriage during the war is due to economic reasons. Many families suffer from economic problems. They thus resort to marrying off their daughters at an early age. Security and protection equally matters, as some families marry their off daughters to protect them, for fear of their subjection to physical assaults.
Education is not a marriage requirement
Underage girls' marriage is more prevalent in rural areas than in cities due to the rural people’s tendency to work in agricultural lands more than other sectors such as education or industry.
Community Issues Researcher Abdullah Wahid commented by saying: "The attitude towards education is very different from that of underage marriage. If a young man can choose education and the university, marrying at this stage of his life will not be one of the priorities. However, if he stops education, he will think about it, especially in rural communities where underage marriage is prevalent."
Amid the wide absence of education, especially for university graduates, and the inability of many young people to complete their education, some resorted to different occupations and jobs instead of studying.
22-year-old Ahmad, a resident in the city of al-Bab, said that "a lot of young university graduates do not find work here. Some of them stopped education and resorted to other occupations and jobs that could more likely ensure their future."
Ahmad has an 18-year-old friend who was planning to continue his education but married a relative, as used to be the case in those areas, and started working in a building workshop.
Mohammad Zaki al-Khatib, the head of the village of Tell Mannas in the south of Idlib, confirmed to Rozana that in rural areas "a young man often marries a relative, his maternal or paternal cousin, according to customs and traditions that stipulate that ‘the young girl should not be married to someone from outside the family’." Consanguineous marriage is considered an important reason for underage marriage.
"Consanguineous marriage in the city is less frequent than that in the countryside, and if there is any in the city, it is not required to be an underage marriage. For example, the young man can wait for the girl to complete her education," said Salwa Zaiden, a citizen from Ma'arrat al-Nu'man in the south of Idlib, to Rozana.
In the past, the young man had to commit to many responsibilities before getting married, the most important of which are serving in the military, obtaining a suitable job, and then providing the suitable conditions for marriage. However, these standards are different now.
Abu Jaber, a citizen from the countryside of Hama, said: "I did not get married until I tuned 30 when I finished my military service. I found a job, built a house, and I managed to raise a small amount of money to get married. However, nowadays, there are young men who have not yet reached 20 years old and have no basic living requirements, yet they are looking for a wife, and that is because of the families’ need to marry off their girls."
Old man Abdulkarim al-Mahmoud, one of the prominent citizens of Hurtah village in the southern countryside of Hama, stressed that there are families who marry off their daughters with "200,000 Syrian liras ($ 400)," for what he called "accelerating the task and facilitating it for young people."
Mohammad al-Sheikh, a civilian in the countryside of Hama, stressed that some people in the area ask the young man a small amount of dowry for the marriage of their daughters, reaching sometimes 150,000 Syrian pounds ($ 300) to facilitate marriage amid the difficult living conditions. In contrast, some families ask a high amount of dowry that may reach one or two thousand dollars to guarantee a good future for their daughter, according to them.
He refused to divorce her so she tried to commit suicide
13-year-old girl Mariam (a pseudonym) knew nothing in her life except playing and some of the bombing scenes. Her sister died after a bombing on Qalaat al-Madiq in the north of Hama.
The husband of the deceased sister had then suggested to her family to marry Mariam. She agreed to take care of her sister's children although she knew nothing about marriage. Mariam had then been surprised by the marriage life, and the fact that life is not as her parents taught her.
After her marriage, one of her sisters' children died by a bombing on Qalaat al-Madiq. Her legs have also been affected by the bombing. Because of her husband's ill treatment, she asked for divorce several times but in vain. The parents refused the return of their young divorced daughter because she was the one who had agreed to get married, and it was her choice despite her young age. This has increased her daily suffering, and she has found no solution but attempting suicide several times.
The rate of underage girls’ marriage had risen from 7 to 30 percent in 2015 in Syria because of the ongoing war for more than seven years, according to the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research.
Underage divorced girls
Commenting on the reasons for the increase of divorce cases, al-Khatib said: "The reason is the couple's immaturity due to their young age, and the lack of awareness and responsibility."
Mohammed Yahya al-Yunis, the head of the ninth sector in the city of al-Bab, agrees with this opinion. He said that an 18-year-old young man in the countryside of the city of al-Bab married a 14-year-old girl and they lived in his family's house. However, their marriage did not last more than a month and a half, considering that the reason for the divorce is "the couple’s lack of awareness."
Education Expert Fawaz Aslan from the city of Saraqib said: "The young man at this age is neither psychologically nor emotionally stable, nor does he think about the marriage’s aspects and responsibilities. When a person is not emotionally stable, he may find out years later that his wife is not the woman he dreamed of and he may fall in love with another woman, which complicates his life and results in a divorce."
A former head of the city of Salqin, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the opinion of the social expert, saying, "underage marriage turns a young man, after years of marriage, into an immoral young man, often addicted to narcotic drinks like wine or alcohol, and he often ends up divorcing and marrying a second wife, to live his own experience, making the family responsible for the damage caused to the young man and girl."
Mahmoud al-Maarawi, the first Sharia judge in Damascus, said that the marriage of underage girls had risen to 13 percent during the years of war, compared to no more than 3 percent before 2011. He pointed out that most of the cases had been customary marriage contracts, al-Watan reported on March 18.
Al-Maarawi said that the marriage of underage girls in Damascus had risen from more than 24 thousand marriages in 2017 to 28 thousand marriages last year. He also pointed out to the high rate of divorce cases, which amounted to 31 percent.