The “Brides” Tents: Tales of Forced Labor and Sexual Abuse

2018-10-05    |   

Early Marriage and Work

“Back in the day, there were no phones so I could at least see a photo of him,” says Umm Bilal in response to her daughter's objection to her engagement to a young man she has never met. Umm Bilal says she got married 17 years ago at the age of 14 to a man she did not even get to see during the signing of the marriage contract. Her father signed on her behalf before the sheikh. When they took her to her father-in-law’s house, they sat her in her marital room alone and left the door open. She saw men passing in front of the door and did not know which one of them was her husband. She laughs today when she remembers that she wished he were a beautiful young man. “Please God let him be a handsome young man,” she recalls saying to herself. However, her wish did not come true. “Neither him nor his seven brothers were good-looking,” she adds. That day, he entered the room, closed the door behind him, and said to her: “I’m your husband.”

Umm Bilal narrated her story within earshot of her daughter to justify persuading her to marry a young man who lives in Syria, while she, the mother, lives in Lebanon. Suad, the bride, will be married on the date of Eid al-Adha before she turns 15. “I am a few months past 14,” Suad says. She opens a trousseau bag where a set of shiny dresses are bundled up together. The groom sent her US$500 to buy her trousseau. When asked what she understood about marriage, Suad started to respond with “nothing,” only to be interrupted by her 22-year-old sister: “Don’t lie, I told you last week.”

Salma, Suad's sister, got engaged to her cousin eight years ago. “We were still in Syria,” she says. She was 14 years old at the time. The war broke out and her family fled to Akkar while he left to Jordan. She has not seen him since then. Now she no longer wants to marry him, but he refuses to leave her alone. “You are my cousin and I will marry you,” he tells her, despite the daily arguments between the two of them over the phone. Salma insists, “I don’t love him and I don’t want him.” Her decision did not stop him from delegating his uncle [to sign the marriage contract on his behalf] in the court, in preparation for their reunification in Jordan. She could not refuse: “Our customs do not allow me [to refuse], he’s my cousin.”

Umm Bilal, whose husband was killed in Syria, says she is unable to support seven children on her own. Justifying her decision to have her daughters engaged at the age of 14, she states: “They’re better off getting married for the sake of their honor.” Aside from the financial burden [to support her children], she believes that “a girl’s future is in her husband's house”. According to Umm Bilal, early marriage saves girls from a worse fate. When asked what this might be, she clarifies that once a girl reaches the age of 20 no one would want to marry her except a widower or a divorced man with children, or she would be taken as a second wife.

This is how Umm Bilal sees her daughters’ lives. Thus, she insists on having them marry one by one. “I had one get married and I have 3 engaged. If a guy wants to marry the fourth, I’ll have her get engaged to be married at 14.” Her fourth is barely 12-years-old . Umm Bilal's girls work in agriculture. “Isn’t it better for them [to get married] than to live in this tent?” the mother says. However, her daughter who got married a month ago, moved from her mother's tent to her husband's. According to Umm Bilal, even if her daughter lives in a tent, she would still be better off with her husband. She goes on to say: “The situation is difficult. How would young men get money to build or rent houses in Lebanon? If we set conditions like we used to do in Syria, no one would get married.”

There is one difference between the parents’ tent and that of the groom: the latter is covered with a bridal satin cloth.The fragile situation of Syrian girls and their early marriage is not limited to refugees in Lebanon. Between Syria and Lebanon, there are stories similar in circumstances, mindset, and the way families think. What is more important is the reality of what is happening to young girls. Farah’s story is just one example .


Sex at Night, Work During the Day, and Regular Violence

One month after Abu Hamed’s family moved from the Hama countryside to the Idlib countryside, a 50-year-old woman came to visit the family with one of the neighbors. The woman had not sat down long before asking for the hand of their 14-year-old second daughter in marriage. “I want her for my son,” the woman said. Farah, the bride, did not want to get married. She tells us, “I did not know what marriage was.” When the woman left, her father told her, “We are going to Lebanon, and I want to make sure you’ll be alright and get married. I just can’t take you all with me.” In one month, Abu Hamed was “relieved” of two daughters, Farah and 15-year-old Maysaloun, his eldest daughter.

Umm Hamed took Farah aside when she cried refusing to get married and told her, “Can’t you see how difficult and ruthless your father is? Maybe he [the groom] will turn out to be a good man, better than your father is to me.” Umm Hamed’s eyes were swollen and blue as a result of her husband hitting her two days before her daughter's engagement.

Two days before the wedding, the groom's mother took Farah to her house and told her about “the wedding night” and what the groom would do to her. Farah did not comment on her prospective mother-in-law’s speech. “I stood up, left her and ran straight to our house. That night I felt so scared that I could not sleep,” she says.

One week after her engagement, Farah married 19-year-old Milad and lived with his family after the latter paid SYP400,000 [US$776] to her father. “He received money [dowry] in return for the hand of my sister and I. He got SYP400,000 for each of us.” Her father bought her bedroom furniture and some glassware, “but my uncle’s wife took everything”, she says.

After 20 days of marriage, her husband attacked her physically for the first time. “I was exhausted from the house chores and I told him I could not be intimate with him that night.” He beat Farah violently and stopped talking to her for three days until she apologized to him. Farah reconciled with her husband because her mother-in-law told her: “Don’t ruin your marriage. He has the right to sleep with you anytime he wants”.

One month after she got married, her husband told her that she had to go out and work with his sisters in the fields. “You need to work just like they do”, he told her.Farah started waking up at 5:30 am and worked until 12:00 pm. She would then return home for three hours and go back for an evening shift. “I would sometimes get back home at 5:00 or 7:00 pm while he was just sitting at home.” Her husband and mother-in-law took all the money she earned. “Whenever I wanted to buy anything, he would say let your family buy it for you; they already took money from us so we can have you.”

Farah says the frequency of her husband's violence towards her increased ever since her family moved to Lebanon and she became “lonely with no one to support her.” She never dared refuse sex with him even if she was unable to move. “I return from a full day of work in the field to do the chores in the house, and at night I have to be ready [for sex] and can never dare say no,” she says. Farah added that she never enjoyed intimacy with him and never wanted him nor felt happy with him.

Four months after her marriage, Farah became pregnant. Even being pregnant with her first child did not spare her from daily work in the fields. Her body was small and skinny and she was in a bad psychological state. She gave birth to a weak baby who died 10 days after her delivery.

Two months after the death of her child, her husband started taking her to a female gynecologist. He kept telling her: “It doesn’t suit you to be a mother because you’re a bad woman.” She continued to take drugs for a whole year to help her conceive to no avail. As a result, she experienced all kinds of violence at the hands of her husband and his family. Sometimes, her mother-in-law would attempt to calm her son down by saying, “Pregnancy is God’s will; she has nothing to do with it.”


Divorced at the Age of 15

A year and a half after her marriage, Farah told her family everything that had happened to her. Her mother headed to the Idlib countryside and had a big row with her son-in-law until she was able to bring her daughter back to Lebanon with her. “If she steps out of the house, consider her divorced,” he told the mother. Farah left her house with nothing but the dress she wore. Her mother paid US$700 to smuggle her across the mountains to the Beqaa.

Today, Farah has returned to agricultural work in the Beqaa Valley. “At least the money I make goes to my family rather than to strangers who, on top of forcing me to work, beat me up,” she says. She wants a divorce. She adds regretfully, “I’m 15 and a half and about to become divorced”, when her mother jumps in saying, while raising her hands in supplication, “God will send you a good man that is much better than him”.


Marriage of Minors: The Reasons

According to UNHCR's report “Vulnerability Assessment Among Syrian Refugees in Lebanon 2017”, 22% of refugee girls are married between the ages of 15 and 19, with 18% of them married to partners 10 or more years their senior. The same statistics applied to those who married between the ages of 20 and 25. The highest percentage of females who got married between the ages of 15 and 19 was in the South Governorate (37%), followed by Akkar (27%) and the North (27%). On the other hand, Baalbek-Hermel and Beqaa came in last place at 16%.

Lorenza Trulli of UNHCR's Protection Unit stated that early marriage happens for two main reasons: the difficult economic situation of refugee families, and to ensure that girls are protected from any external risk.

Trulli does not overlook the families’ customs, traditions, and mentality as reasons for early marriage, albeit to a lesser extent. She emphasizes that families believe that early marriage of girls is in their interest, giving them a chance to live a better life.

This data is consistent with the findings of a study published in July 2018 by Abaad Association entitled “Trying to Understand the Marriage of Children Among Syrian Refugees in Lebanon.” According to the study supervisor Saja Michael, the researchers built the sample on 1,346 persons (male and female). The participants wrote 1,422 stories for the study team. The study did not require early marriage to be the subject or content of the story. However, 40% of those who sent stories chose early marriage as the subject of their stories.

Michael noted that about 95% of those who wrote stories about the marriage of minors viewed it in a negative way and knew the negative effects it has on young girls in the present and in the future, “yet they practice it” she adds. This means that “we need to work more on understanding the causes.” According to the analysis, men linked the reasons to the financial situation, while women noted the protection of girls as one of the main reasons for early marriage, in addition to the subject of education which men never mentioned.

The results of the study highlight how the circumstances of marriage have changed. The story writers said that the way people deal with marriage now is different. They used to celebrate the wedding for a whole week, whereas today, the bride just moves to another tent.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

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