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11 years old and next in line for marriage

Amal*, 11, is a Syrian refugee living in Lebanon. She was due to get married to ease the burden felt by her mother. However, thanks to Plan International’s support centre, she is no longer getting married and is looking forward to a positive future.

Amal was nearly married off at the age of 11
Amal was nearly married off at the age of 11.

On a muddy hillside in a village in northern Lebanon are 10 or so makeshift tents with tarpaulin roofs. Amal* from Syria lives in one of them with her mother and 5 siblings. This tent has been her home for 6 years. Now 11, Amal's childhood is slowly slipping away.

"I can't read or write. I have never gone to school and don't understand why,” she says. “We have nothing to do here. I am at home during the day playing with my younger sisters and brothers or helping my mother. 

"I would love to attend school. I want to be a teacher and teach children to write in a large school."

Terrifying journey from Syria

Amal was only 4 when her family was forced to flee the bomb-ravaged city of Idlib. She doesn't remember much about their flight and Syria. However, her mother Rim, 32, has powerful memories. 

"I had just given birth when the shells started to fall over Idlib,” says Rim. “We were panic-stricken and decided to flee. We simply ran out and I was forced to hold my hands over the wound in my stomach so that the stitches didn't open up.”

When they had travelled some distance, her eldest daughter discovered that her newly born sister had been left behind at the hospital. "Imagine being so frightened that you forget your children! My oldest girl had to run back and fetch her."

The family rents a reinforced tent made with wooden poles covered by tarpaulins. On the floor in the single room are thick carpets and a small wood burning stove. It is draughty and cold. The windows can't be shut, and Rim explains how hellish this winter has been. Snow, rain and floods have caused water to gush in under the canvas.

"My husband died in Syria and I am alone with 6 children,” says Rim. “I am ill myself after a womb operation and my son has epilepsy. The worst thing for a mother is not being able to provide her children with what they need. I am aware of my children's needs - my daughter Amal wants to go to school - but I can't give her that".   

Amal, 11, lives in a makeshift camp on a muddy hillside in northern Lebanon
Amal, 11, lives in a makeshift camp on a muddy hillside in northern Lebanon.

Refugee children at risk in Lebanon

"The greatest challenges for Syrian children are child marriage, child labour and that so many of them are not going to school. A whole generation of children are losing their childhood and need urgent support," says Elissa Alhassrouny of Plan International Lebanon.

Poverty is the underlying cause of children's vulnerability. Over half of Syrian refugees live in extreme poverty and struggle to eat enough food each day. Today, around 1.5 million Syrian refugees live in Lebanon which means the country hosts the highest number of refugees per capita in the world. 

At the same time, Lebanon is struggling with high unemployment and deficient social security for its own population. The situation for refugees is getting worse as prices for housing and food are rising and many Syrians do not have work permits.

Next in line for marriage

Amal's elder sisters, aged 15 and 16, are already married and live nearby with their husbands, but often come to spend time with their mother and siblings. When the family came into contact with Plan International's support programme Amal was next in line to be married and she had also started to work for a family as a maid.

"Mum wanted me to be married because she doesn't have any money. I didn't know anything about the man and said I didn't want to because I was too young. I want to go to school," Amal says.

Amal and her younger brother now attend Plan International's support centre for vulnerable Syrian and Lebanese children. Although Amal hasn't had any schooling yet, her marriage has been called off and she has stopped working.

Amal attends a support centre run by Plan International
Amal attends a support centre run by Plan International

Support for refugee children

Plan International’s support centre is in an old detached house at the top of the village. Amal and other Syrian children come here twice a week to learn about their health and rights as well as the risks and consequences of child labour and child marriage.

Larma Amine is a social worker for the Akkar Network for Development, one of Plan International’s partner organisations, who have been working with Syrian children in the area for many years.

She says, "When we found out Amal was working and going to get married at such a young age, we decided to talk to her mother to see whether we could get her to change her mind, which worked."

Inside the support centre the children are drawing their hands-on pieces of paper. They colour one hand green and the other red. The lesson is about body integrity and what is right and wrong when it comes to physical contact. The leader asks the children what they should do if an adult was to ask them to take off their clothes. They all put up their red hands for wrong. 

"I like coming here. I was very unhappy before but since receiving help I feel better,” says Amal. “I was overjoyed when my mother changed her mind and decided not to marry me off. I said that I loved her. Now my mother has started to work I don't have to. I know she will always protect us." 

Plan International’s work in Lebanon

Plan International works with local organisations to offer psychosocial support and activities for both Syrian and Lebanese children living in vulnerable circumstances. The activities follow a syllabus where different themes are addressed over the course of 17 weeks. 

The programmes for younger children entail a lot of play and learning about their rights, as well as their physical and mental health, body integrity and the risks of child labour and child marriage.  

For teenagers, the focus is on preventing child marriage, sexual and reproductive health problems, gender-based violence and ensuring young people are aware of the social services available in their neighbourhood. Social workers have been trained to identify children at risk of child marriage, child labour or violence and work with the parents to achieve positive change.

*Name changed to protect identity.