Behind the Refugee Tents: Forced Marriage and Violence

Rana Zalghout

Ever since the Syrian Civil War started in 2011, the topic of refugees in Lebanon has been always controversial and trendy on social media, at coffee shops, on news television, at family gatherings and so many other social settings. Indeed, as a Lebanese myself, after 11 years of the war, I still hear people talking about refugees at least once per week. Personally, I never thought of the stories and hardships that might be happening inside the camps.

However, after a small visit to one of the refugee camps in Bekaa, I was able to shift my perceptions of refugees as I had my mind occupied with the stories that I heard there. While people keep complaining about refugees in Lebanon, thousands of refugee women and girls are facing gender-based violence on daily basis, are being forced into child marriages, and are getting sexually abused by men inside the camps. So, what is going on inside those refugee tents in the rural areas of Lebanon?

With over one million displaced individuals, Lebanon shelters the most Syrian refugees per capita, and refugees now account for more than a fifth of the country’s population. As a result of the Lebanese government’s choice not to build formal camps for displaced Syrians, refugees are distributed around the nation, living in informal tented settlements or integrated into local communities, either with family or in rental lodgings, rather than being hosted in formal, funded refugee camps. The province of Bekaa has the most Syrian refugees (339,233), followed by North Lebanon (237,392) and Beirut.

While many refugee children face risks such as economic hardship, malnutrition, limited access to healthcare, and forced labor, girls are indeed highly susceptible to additional gender-based risks such as forced marriages, domestic abuse (DV), and intimate partner violence (IPV), sexual exploitation and abuse, and community intimidation and the threat of violence. In addition to early marriage as a type of SGBV, married Syrian girls are occasionally subjected to violence in their homes after marrying at a young age.

During my visit to the refugee camp to learn more about education in refugee settings, one of the teachers informed me that many girls stopped going to school since their parents forced them to marry at young ages such as 12 years old. In fact, the young girls’ forced husbands get intimidated when the girls are literate and educated. Also, the teacher told me a heartbreaking story about one of her students who committed suicide in the camp because she got subjected to sexual abuse. Unfortunately, many young girls are facing daily obstacles, and yet they are still trying to survive. Besides, there are very few efforts that are taken to spread awareness about these issues that are going on in refugee settings.

It breaks my heart to know that as I am currently writing this article, and as you’re reading it, a Syrian child in one of the camps is currently being forced into marriage or is being subjected to violence. Since many refugees in the camps have little knowledge about human rights, as many of them are attached to their traditions that sometimes tolerate violence, I believe that more awareness should be done inside the camps by religious leaders who are appreciated and have a great influence on refugees.

For instance, religious men can use verses from the holy books to inform refugees that violence is prohibited since the refugee community is conservative and strictly religious. However, many religious leaders seem to not give much attention to the issues faced by refugee women and girls inside the camps.

When are we going to witness an era where the whole community collaborates together to end violence and promote human rights?

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