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.
Mamoona Said is the director of the Syrian Expatriate Medical Association, a group that provides shelter and counseling for Syrian women who have been targeted by sexual violence. A Syrian, Said has lived in Jordan since the 1980s and said her group has assisted dozens of women in Jordan and Egypt.
“Some of them were raped during house raids, and others were abused in the regime prisons,” she said. “In Jordan we started about two months after the revolution began. The first case was that of a woman whose father is a well-known merchant who was arrested. Her father had pay to get her out of prison, where she had been raped.”
The rescue committee’s report said many victims and their families never report a rape because of the high value Syrian society places on female chastity. The stigma associated with rape made it difficult for women to come forward, Said said, because they fear not only their rapists but family members who might see such admissions as shameful.
“Ten days ago we had a case, and even the psychiatrist hasn’t met her yet. She’s married and has children and doesn’t want to talk about it. It takes them a long time,” Said 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.”