The mayor of Arsal, Ali al-Hojeiri, denies these allegations of sexual misconduct by local men. "That doesn't exist...not a single Syrian woman has filed a
complaint about this," he says. "We look after those girls as if they were our own daughters."
In a separate conversation, the deputy mayor, Ahmad Fliti, admits to a growing trend of men from Arsal marrying Syrian girls, but also claims to have no
knowledge of any sexual harassment taking place.
The women, however, tell a very different story. Reem describes an incident in which she says a man from Arsal tried to entice and then force her into a
shop, beating her when she resisted.
"I told him...'Don't think all Syrian girls here have no self-respect,'" she says. "'Do you think I'm so low that I would respond to you? You're the ones who
have no self-respect, that you would harass us like this. You should be helping us, feeding us, treating us like family. We're in a very bad situation, and
you're trying to take advantage of us.' So he hit me...my face was all swollen. I started to cry and ran away."
Ghida Anani, director of Abaad, a Lebanese NGO that does work related to gender-based violence in the Syrian camps, says much of the evidence they've
collected in assessments and focus groups supports these allegations.
"During these sessions, we became more informed about the magnitude of the problem," says Anani. "Women and adolescents talked excessively about incidents
of sexual violence they encountered both in Syria and Lebanon. There's also the issue of using women for sexual purposes; in other words, forced
The women at both the mosque settlement and Maya's house say they've encountered many examples of this kind of sexual exploitation. Maya's aunt, a
formidable woman named Mona, says that prostitution, whether forced or consensual, happens often among the refugees.
"There are families who sell their daughters to survive," she says. "But the men here also take the girls they want, with or without money."
Maya's mother jumps in. "I'm marrying my daughters so they can be safe and we can be secure," she says. "Before, we were all living in one room. We felt
like beggars. I had a son, but he was martyred in Syria. My husband is fighting there. Who is supposed to take care of us?"
Kecia Ali, a professor of religion at Boston University who specializes in issues of gender-based violence, such as early marriage, says the tradition of
child marriage occurs in developing countries across the globe. She explains that during times of conflict, this practice tends to evolve in a multitude of
"Often, we think of child marriage as a practice of hardened patriarchs who give absolutely no thought to their daughters' wellbeing," says Ali. "But in a
situation where sexual violence is feared, marrying a girl off is perceived in some instances as a way to ensure that she's able to make a good match. So
it's done out of concern for her welfare."