Nine Syrian refugee women gather in the living room of a house on the outskirts of the Lebanese town of Jdeideh in the Bekaa Valley, close to the Syrian border. Most of the women are teenagers; the only two adults look to be in their 40s. They're all dressed neatly, and everybody seems healthy and well fed. According to them, though, that wasn't always the case.
"When we left Syria, we slept in the street, all of us...we had nothing to eat," says Maya, one of the younger girls. "We ate hunger."
At 14, Maya is the most striking of the group, with unusual light blue eyes in a round face. She says she's just been engaged to a wealthy Lebanese man from the town, but she's dreading the union because her future husband is 45 years old.
"I'm marrying him so things will be better," Maya says. "I don't want to get married; I don't want to have children. I'm only doing this for security. Isn't it shameful that I'm 14 years old and I have to marry a 45-year-old man?"
"I don't love him," she says, starting to cry. "I can't even look him in the face."
The U.N. estimates that just under 500,000 registered refugees have crossed the border into Lebanon since the Syrian conflict started in March 2011. Individuals and families fleeing Syria are now scattered across the country, but the largest number of refugees is concentrated in the Bekaa Valley. Those who can afford rent live in rooms or houses, while the most impoverished occupy ad hoc settlements that have sprung up in and around northern towns such as Arsal.
According to UNHCR, 78 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are women and children. This gender disparity is at least partially due to the high number of male casualties resulting from the conflict. In addition, many men have elected to continue fighting in Syria instead of fleeing to Lebanon and other neighboring countries. These circumstances ensure that the majority of Syrian refugees are also the most vulnerable. Reports of sexual harassment and assault of women and girls, sometimes by other Syrians, but mostly at the hands of local men, have dogged settlements in Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt for some time.
Jihane Larous, UNICEF's child protection and gender-based violence specialist, says the threat of sexual violence, combined with extreme poverty, has caused an upswing in the number of child marriages among Syrian refugees.
"With the emergency surrounding the conflict in Syria, the trend of early marriage has increased," says Larous. "At the same time, the reasons for early marriage have changed. In addition to the economic motivation behind this practice...there is also the issue of protection...to protect the honor of the girl and her family. Because of the prevalence of sexual violence, whether in Syria or here in Lebanon, marrying your daughter puts her under the protection of a man, so she'll be less at risk of being assaulted."
In a much smaller, shabbier room at a settlement near a mosque in Arsal, another 12 women sit on mattresses lining the floor. Their clothes are torn and ragged, their faces tired. A few hold babies in their laps. The mother of three of the girls, a middle-aged woman named Rihab, holds court at the center of the room.
"The girls can't leave and go anywhere by themselves," she says. "The men harass them and grope them. Honestly, I have two girls who aren't married yet. If men came along and wanted to marry them, I would agree right away, so I can save them...from the danger and harassment."
A 20-year-old woman named Reem holds a squirming three-year-old girl in her lap as she talks.
"A girl we know was kidnapped by four men," she says. "They kept her for 10 days, then threw her in the street. Imagine how traumatized she must be. 10 days, and God forbid, four men."
One of Rihab's daughters, a pretty 17-year-old named Sarab, chimes in. "Now her father wants to marry her to anyone, even a beggar," she says, shaking her head.
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 prostitution."
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 ways.
"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."
Some of the girls at the mosque settlement express despair at their lack of recourse in instances of gender-based violence. Sarab uses the example of an influential man in Arsal who is notorious for harassing and assaulting Syrian girls.
"There's nothing anyone can do to stop this man," she says. "If one of the girls' families tries to make a problem for him, he'll make a bigger problem for them...where are we supposed to go for help?"
The lack of available resources dedicated to protecting Syrian refugee women appears to be a very real problem. According to Larous, UNICEF is attempting to institute initiatives aimed at providing shelters for girls who have been victimized. She says they're also planning to coordinate with the Lebanese government and security forces, training them how to better deal with incidents of gender-based violence.
"In terms of law enforcement in Lebanon, there are clear procedures when it comes to sexual violence against minors, so the police have the mandate to intervene," she says. "The only thing we can do is work closely with the government to support these processes."
Asked about reports of local government officials and aid workers using their positions to take advantage of Syrian women and girls, Larous is circumspect.
"Unfortunately, without being cynical, these circumstances take place in any emergency," she says. "Exploitation and abuse by service providers does happen. It's not an exceptional situation. Our duty is to make sure there are safeguards and complaint mechanisms in place...and that corrective measures are taken. We can't prevent this from happening, but we can try to ensure that these women and girls have access to resources."
But according to Anani, these initiatives have taken a long time to implement, and are coming very late in the game.
"It's only been this year during which serious discussion and debate has been taking place on how to best approach this," she says. "We've been well aware that this has been a problem for some time. Responding is taking too long, when it should have been done immediately...some of the forced sexual exploitation and prostitution is already becoming organized and less easy to deal with."
While these initiatives are still in the planning stages, some Syrian refugee mothers say they increasingly see no option but to turn to early marriage in order to alleviate the threat of sexual violence as well as economic strain. At the house in Jdeideh, Maya's mother puts a hand on her weeping daughter's back and sighs.
"I have four girls," she says. "The other day, I took the youngest one to get bread from the aid office in Arsal. She's 11 years old. The man who was giving out the food harassed her. I told him to get his hands off her, and he said that he was honoring her by putting his hand on her...what am I supposed to do to protect her?"
Ali says that for women and girls dealing with crisis situations, it's often a question of choosing the lesser of two evils.
"It seems to me that most people in this situation are doing the best they can in a very precarious, vulnerable time and place," she says. "Those who are being victimized...specifically by early marriage; are sometimes being victimized in order to shelter them from other forms of victimization. These are calculations that people are making very deliberately, and it's unfortunate that they have to make them."
In the relative comfort of the clean, spacious house she lives in her with her family, Maya is inconsolable.
"The man I'm marrying tells me, 'I'm the one who protects you; I'm the one who feeds you. You have to do what I say, or I'll throw you in the street,'" she says between sobs. "I'm disgusted by him...but I'm doing this for my family, so we can live in security."
After awhile, she takes a deep breath and wipes her face resignedly.
"He's right," she says. "He is the one who feeds us and protects us, and I'd rather be violated by one man than every man in town."
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