Family members and the groom (right) with a Syrian 15-year-old refugee in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan on May 4, 2013. (Photo by Heidi Levine/Sipa Press)
Inside a furniture-free caravan in the Jordanian desert, sixteen women and girls and a plump boy wedge themselves in a circle around a 15-year-old girl and a woman doing her hair. The hairdresser combs through one-inch sections, spraying on a fixative before twisting them into elaborate shapes. The girl, whom I’ll call Nada (I’ve changed her name as well as others’ to protect their privacy), is one of hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled to neighboring countries from Syria’s civil war. We are in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp—now the second-largest in the world—and Nada is getting married today.
After Nada’s geisha-like makeup is done, three women will sprinkle her body with talcum powder, minus the parts covered by leggings and a bra. She will step into a rented dress and then spend three more hours waiting on a floor mattress in the heat before meeting her husband between caravans, in a field of pebbles that extends to the horizon in all directions.
This is marriage, Zaatari-style. Unlike the custom in the Syrian town of Dara’a, where the couple is from, there will be no lavish spread of food, no music, no throngs of joyous relatives, few gifts. And since there is no light for an evening celebration, everything will happen before sundown.
“We’re celebrating, but the joy doesn’t come from the heart,” the bride’s father, Mohamed, 35, tells me.
This is not a wedding Mohamed wanted just yet. But after five months in Zaatari and no better future in sight, he can no longer provide for Nada, so he’s decided to accept the bride price of 125,000 Syrian lira (about $1,280) and allow his daughter to marry an 18-year-old I’ll call Mazen. Mohamed has many other children to feed, including a 2-month-old girl whose shirt he yanks up, revealing more ribs than a baby should show. “It’s like Somalia here,” Mohamed says, pointing at his daughter. “We are dying slowly.”
Like many men in the camp, Mohamed decided to hand over his eldest daughter early for marriage to protect her as well as to get a little money for his family. He says he worries about the girls Nada associates with: there are rumors that many are turning to prostitution to feed themselves. He worries that Nada will be raped if she remains single. And he fears she’ll lose her childhood no matter what he decides.
While some media outlets have been reporting that early marriage is on the rise among Syrian refugees, most NGOs working on this issue in Amman told me that Syrians are simply carrying on the traditions they brought from home, where girls in rural areas often marry between the ages of 15 and 20.
It’s difficult to count how many marriages are taking place at Zaatari, which houses more than 150,000 people, with 1,000 more arriving every day, according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The weddings are held between tents and caravans, with contracts written by local sheiks and not filed with civil authorities. An October 2012 Mercy Corps report estimated that about 500 underage Syrian girls had been married in Jordan that year. A UNICEF representative in Jordan told Voice of America in April that the agency believes early marriages to Jordanian and other Gulf area men have risen. Whatever the actual number, a UN official recently condemned early marriage, saying, “It is an unfair thing to do to a child.”
In fact, Nada and Mazen’s marriage is illegal.
The age of consent in Jordan is 18, which means that Nada and Mazen are committing a crime if they don’t apply for a special waiver (according to the UNHCR, Jordanian law applies in Zaatari). It also means that any child they have will be considered illegitimate, which will damage the child’s social status and make it more difficult to acquire Jordanian nationality and documents. According to the US State Department, the minimum marriage age in Syria is generally 18 for boys and 17 for girls, though exceptions are possible if both parties consent.