As a four-year-old, Amal had to flee for her life when the bombs rained on Syria. She is now 11 years old, and her mother has started planning her wedding. A childhood full of laughter and play has suddenly changed.
Amal is 11 years old. She is a refugee from Syria, and currently lives in a small village in the Akkar area of Lebanon with her mother and siblings. Amal has never attended school, and can neither read nor write.
Her two older sisters, aged 15 and 16, are already married, and now it is soon Amal’s turn to marry. Her mother has already found a husband for her.
Amal is scared. She dreams of getting an education, about becoming a teacher and working at a big school. But she’s not in school, she works as a maid for another family as well as helping her at home with household things and taking care of her younger siblings.
In Ireland we may take it for granted, but for 132 million girls in the world going to school is simply not possible. There’s several reasons why girls don’t attend school, but child marriage is a significant factor.
Amal was only four years old when her family had to flee the city of Idlib where they lived when the bombs narrowed. She remembers not so much from those fateful hours when they had to flee from their hometown of Syria, but for her mother Rim (32) the memories are burned.
“My youngest daughter was born by Caesarean section, and right after I gave birth it started to rain bombs on Idlib. There was complete panic and we had to flee at once. We ran out of the hospital and I had to hold my hands over my cut in my stomach so that the stitches didn’t come loose”, says Rim.
“My husband died in Syria, and now I’m alone with six children. I’m not completely healthy after a stomach operation, and my son has epilepsy”, says Rim.
“The worst thing for a mother is not being able to take care of her children and not being able to give them what they need. I know what my kids need. My daughter Amal wants to go to school, but I don’t know how to do it”, she continues.
Amal’s big sisters are home visiting and helping to serve tea inside the small tent that the family rents. The winter has been tough, and both snow and rain sweep under the canvas.
Rim’s elder daughters have moved out and live nearby with their husbands. Soon it’s Amal’s turn to move out.
Many Syrians who come to the country also strive to obtain a work permit, which makes the economic situation extra demanding. Amal and the family are in dire need of money, and Rim believes that a marriage can give their daughters some financial security.
But then Amal’s life takes an unexpected and positive turn. She and her mother talk to a social worker in one of the projects Plan International supports. Larma Amine has worked with Syrian children in the area for many years and is trained in identifying situations where children are particularly vulnerable.
“When I found out that Amal worked as a maid for a family and that she would marry even if she was just a child, I decided to talk to her mother to try to persuade her not to do this”, says Larma .
And it worked!
Today, Amal and her youngest brother are active at Plan International’s Children’s Day Centre in the area where they live. The siblings visit the centre twice a week with several other children with similar backgrounds. Although Amal is not going to school yet, her wedding has stopped and she is no longer working as a maid.
At the centre, Amal learns about issues such as health and own rights, as well as the consequences of child marriage and child labour.
Inside Amal’s classroom, the children sit and draw an outline of their hands on paper. They colour one hand green and the other red. This hour is about body integrity and what is okay and wrong with physical contact. The teacher asks the children what to do if an adult asks them if they can take off their clothes. Everyone shows the red hand for “wrong”.
“I was so happy when my mom changed her mind and said I didn’t need to get married anyway. Now my mom has started working, so I don’t have to. I know she will always protect us”, Amal continues.
2 in 3 girls in crisis are likely to never start secondary school. A girl fleeing from war is more likely to be married and a teenage mother before the age of 18 than to finish school.
But together, there’s something we can do.
With your support, Plan International aims to prevent, among other things, child marriage, protection against violence and abuse, and to teach children and young people about their rights and sexual and reproductive health. We also provide counselling, following their experiences from the war and conflict.
Child marriage can have serious consequences for the girls and their future. They are deprived of childhood, often quit school, have children long before they are ready for it, and stay home. This prevents girls from becoming financially independent and living free lives.