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‘Epidemic of child marriage’ for Syrian girl refugees, aid agency warns

ELIZABETH JACKSON: An international aid agency is warning of an “epidemic of child marriage” for Syrian refugee girls under the age of 18 who have fled to Jordan.

Save the Children says among Syrian refugees in Jordan, child marriage is now one quarter of all marriages.

Chief executive of Save the Children organisation, Paul Ronalds, told our reporter Sarah Dingle that many refugee parents are trying to protect their girls by marrying them off.

PAUL RONALDS: We’ve come up with some fairly shocking findings and that is just an incredible increase in the proportion of Syrian children in Jordan who are now getting married below the age of 18.

Previously in 2011, when the humanitarian crisis in Syria was just beginning, it was around 12 per cent. That went up to about 18 per cent in 2012 and now is around 25 per cent of all girl children under 18.

A shocking outcome.

SARAH DINGLE: So around one quarter of all Syrian child refugees, girl children, are being married before the age of 18 in Jordan. This is an extraordinary jump. Why is this occurring?

PAUL RONALDS: Just the sheer scale of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and now in neighbouring Iraq and its impacting obviously on Lebanon and Jordan itself, creates the environment where families are struggling to cope and respond.

They can’t feed all the mouths in the family and one way to reduce one mouth is to marry a girl child off. There’s also the fear of sexual violence; the insecurity in camps can at times be quite significant.

Obviously there’s many single parents, many more single parents than what there would have been because of parents being killed in the humanitarian crisis and just that the sheer dropping out of education means girl children are perhaps more available to be married in a refugee type context.

SARAH DINGLE: What you’re saying is Save the Children is seeing girl children, girl refugees from Syria who may only have one parent or no parent, they’re living in refugee camps which are less secure and less safe than other locations, and they’re being married for their own protection?

PAUL RONALDS: That’s certainly one of the reasons for this. Parents are concerned about the welfare of their children, manage it by marrying off one of those children, the girl children, into another family, and that partially solves the problem from their perspective.

Clearly it’s not a coping mechanism that we want to support and it’s one that brings great risks to the child itself.

SARAH DINGLE: Child marriages for girls under the age of 18, can that turn into a violent or dangerous situation?

PAUL RONALDS: Yeah, children marrying under 18 can have a whole range of really negative impacts.

The first of course, is that girl children are far more likely to drop out of education once they’re married. It also often means that they’re socially isolated at a key period of their development so that can have again long term impacts on their health and wellbeing.

Domestic violence is clearly an issue. It’s girl children who get married under 18 are far more likely to suffer from domestic violence then others, and then finally just things like childbirth – children who get pregnant under 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth for example than fully grown women.

SARAH DINGLE: So the terrible reality is even if you marry your child before she’s 18 to protect her from what you see is a dangerous situation for Syrian refugees in a camp, it may be out of the frying pan into the fire?

PAUL RONALDS: Absolutely, that’s one of the key concerns that we have from this really significant increase in child marriages.

SARAH DINGLE: How many girl children are we talking about being forced into underage marriage?

PAUL RONALDS: Around 1 million children have been forced to flee from Syria. Not all of those have gone to Jordan, many of them are in Lebanon and Iraq as well. But if one quarter of children in Jordan from Syrian backgrounds are involved in this, we expect similar numbers if not worse numbers in Iraq and Lebanon.

The maths are not hard to do. We’re seeing an absolute epidemic of child marriage in that environment.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: And that’s Paul Ronalds from Save the Children Australia, speaking there to Sarah Dingle.

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