I want to decide my future and live my life

Girls from Syria who have fled to Lebanon are learning about their rights so they can take control of their futures.

A workshop on child marriage is taking place in the outskirts of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city.  Some 20 teenage girls are in full swing enacting a wedding ceremony on a football pitch. Music is booming out. It is clear that the girls know each other and feel secure in the group. 

They joke and laugh all the time. Half the group put themselves in the young bride’s situation and the other half in that of the somewhat older man. Afterwards the leader gathers the group in a circle and ask: “What do you think will happen then, in a few year’s time?”

One girl puts up her hand at lightning speed: “They will argue every day. She is too young and can’t handle the responsibility a marriage entails.” 

“The man will use violence against the woman because she doesn’t understand him and his needs.” another one answers. “It’s not good for boys who get married young either. I know a boy who married young and was forced to take a job that was very dangerous. He fell from a tall building and died.”

“Child marriage has serious consequences for girls. Emotionally and physically. They can get pregnant, which can result in death when you give birth to children at a young age.” says one girl.

All the girls in the group have fled from Syria. One of them is already married, while many of the others are living with pressure from their families that they should soon get married and have a family soon. 

18 year old Samiha has been living in Lebanon since 2013. “I remember the war and fleeing very well. There was lots of shelling directed at Idlib, in the middle of Ramadan. I cried as we packed. My older brother and older sister didn’t come with us. They are still there and living in great danger. Every time there is shelling, I message them and ask whether they are OK.”

Samiha lives with her older brother and her single mother in an apartment they obtained from the UN. The rent is expensive and her brother only works sporadically. Samiha no longer attends school. She has anaemia and needed hospital care for a substantial period after which it was difficult to go back. 

Life as a refugee girl is tough. “We are subject to sexual harassment in the street and are called lots of things by men who want to have contact on Snapchat. There is also a certain amount of bullying of us Syrians, Lebanese children don’t want to be with Syrian children. But what scares me most is that my mother is ill, especially as my father is dead. I know that I ought to be working to help to pay for my mother’s medical treatment.”

Child marriage is a problem that has increased among Syrian girls since the war started. It is also widespread among certain groups in Lebanon and voices are currently being raised urging the government to prohibit marriage below 18 years old, which is not the case today. 

“I recently heard about a 13 year old girl who married a 16 year old boy. How are things going to go for them?” Samiha wonders. 

She appreciated attending the child marriage workshop organised by Plan International at a support centre for vulnerable Syrian and Lebanese children. “Here at the centre I have learned more about why child marriage is detrimental. It is a threat to the girl’s health and life. It prevents her from getting an education and a profession, all her future prospects. She loses all her rights and her freedom.”

Two years ago a boy asked for Samiha’s hand in marriage. “I was 16 years and he was nice and respectful. But I didn’t want to. I felt that I hadn’t fulfilled my goals and dreams and my mother and brother let me decide.”

Samiha radiates energy and strength. Her eyes sparkle when she says words like freedom and rights. 

“At the same time I feel pressure from society that I should marry. People say: “Perhaps nobody will want you when you are 20,” But I don’t care. Who says that I even want to get married? I want to decide my future and live my life.”

And what life is all about right now is chiefly football. Samiha plays in a team where everybody is welcome, boys and girls, Syrians and Lebanese. 

“When I play football I forget all my anxiety and problems, that I am a refugee. I feel good, both physically and emotionally. I play goalkeeper or forward. I am a very good goalkeeper because I sacrifice myself totally.  I protect the goal with my body, my head, with everything I have.”

Samiha also attends a football coaching course. “I want be a football coach and train younger children. I also dream of becoming an artist one day. I often say that I want to move back to Syria, to my siblings. I hope that we do finally go home.”

Plan International’s work in Lebanon

Plan International works together 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 risks and consequences of child labour and child marriage. 

For teenagers, the focus is on preventing child marriage, sexual and reproductive health, gender-based violence and what social services are available in the 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 a positive change.