In the wake of the Syrian uprising that began in Spring 2011, an estimated 150,000 people have fled Syria for Jordan. Syrian women and girls living in refugee camps and temporary housing are especially vulnerable to harmful marriage practices and other forms of gender-based violence and exploitation. In an article posted this morning by RH Reality Check, freelance journalist Ruth Michaelson reports:
Visitors to Amman speak of a recent phenomenon: get into any taxi, chat with the driver, and he will tell you that “cheap wives” are to be found in the refugee camps near the Syrian border. “Cheap” refers to the dowry given to the brides’ families, as well as to the women’s expectations.
Real or imagined, local notions about Syrian women could exacerbate their vulnerability to harmful marriage practices. “There are all kinds of social conceptions of Syrian women as the most obedient, the most caring of their husbands out of all Middle Eastern women,” activist Khadija told Michaelson, “There are all kinds of jokes now within Jordanian society that the women should watch out, as with all these Syrian women in the country, the men will always choose a Syrian woman over a Jordanian woman.” Michaelson warns:
[C]ultural norms dictate that most Syrian women will have lower expectations for their standard of living, having come from an even poorer country … Add to this that Syrian women are normally paler, a valuable asset in a region in which skin-bleaching products replace tanning products. There is a growing sense that female Syrian refugees, while socially elevated, are now increasingly perceived as vulnerable, due to the conditions under which many refugees are living.
GJI forced marriage initiative director Julia Alanen says that “Social unrest, war, civil conflict, natural disasters, famine and poverty in many parts of the world precipitate forced and early marriage. Displaced families who have lost everything sometimes sell their daughters into marriage in an effort to feed and shelter both the bride and the rest of the family.” Plan UK confirms that exigent circumstances in recent years have increased the rates of forced and early marriage:
Food insecurity in Kenya has led to the phenomena of ‘famine brides’, drought and conflict in Afghanistan have forced farmers to arrange and receive money for the early marriage of their daughters, and girls in Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka have been pressed into marriages with ‘tsunami widowers’, in many instances doing so to receive state subsidies for marrying and starting a family. Early marriage increased in Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami as families in refugee camps saw it as the only protection for their daughters from rape and in Sri Lanka, where rates of early marriage are normally relatively low, girls have been married to protect them from recruitment into militia.
“All too often,” observes Alanen, “the very women and girls whose plights fuel contemporary struggles for human rights and social justice pay the highest price for reform.”
READ MORE: The Road to Hell Is Paved with Good Intentions: Syrian Refugees and “Marriages of Convenience”, by Ruth Michaelson, Freelance Journalist (Middle East), RH Reality Check (October 9, 2012).