For Their Dignity and Our Humanity: Responding to the Needs of Married Girls

Ashley Lackovich-Van Gorp

Regional Center for the Advancement of Women and Girls (Mercy Corps) | Director; Enhance Worldwide | Founding Executive Director; Girls' Globe | Blogger
Girls making crafts at an ECHO-funded youth center in Jordan's Zaatari camp.

Girls making crafts at an ECHO-funded youth center in Jordan's Zaatari camp. Photo credit: © EU/ECHO/Peter Biro via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Zahra is a 14-year-old girl living in Jordan. When she was five years old, she dreamt of going to school. When she was ten and in school, she dreamt of becoming a doctor.

At 12 years old, Zahra fled Syria with her family. As refugees, her parents encountered a life of unprecedented instability and poverty. Desperate to secure a future for his daughter, Zahra’s father arranged for her to marry a man in his 20s. Zahra protested, but she had no other options: She wasn’t in school, her family couldn’t afford to feed her, and she had no way of earning an income on her own. Given this desperate situation, she married an adult man before she was old enough to drive a car or vote. At age 14, she became a mother.

Zahra is one of 39,000 girls forced to marry every day.

When asked if she still has dreams, Zahra replied that instead of dreaming of her future, she remembers her past. “Before I was married,” she clarified, “that’s the time I like remembering.”

When I hear of a young adult setting aside her dreams to marry her high school boyfriend, I might wonder if she made the right choice. But when I hear that a child’s father married her off in desperation, when I hear that she was forced to enter a union that causes and drives physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, when she became pregnant without understanding how she conceived and then, as a child, bore a child herself, I realize that our humanity depends on our response to her.

UNHCR estimates that 32% of Syrian girls in Jordan are married. This is especially alarming when we consider that the rate of child marriage in Syria before the war was 13%. Forced from their country and their parental homes, married girls now must survive as children in a role meant for adults.

The global community has united in a commitment to end child marriage. The UN Sustainable Development Goals even include a target to eliminate “all harmful practices” against girls and women “such as child, early and forced marriage.” At the same time, we cannot allow our focus on prevention to keep us from recognizing and addressing the unique needs of already married girls.

There is much we can do to address these needs. According to the Girls Not Brides strategy, we can both prevent and respond to child marriage by empowering girls, mobilizing their families and communities, providing them with services, and implementing protective laws and policies. In my work, I’ve had the opportunity to help married girls develop life skills. These adaptive and psychosocial skills help them navigate the unique challenges of being a child in an adult union. The ability to negotiate, for instance, helps married girls to address their needs within their marriage.

Still, I think the most powerful programs for married girls are those that foster friendships. Reproductive health services can prevent pregnancy, life skills can build self-esteem, and financial literacy can create more independence, but only friendships can heal the heart. These friendships also encourage girls to participate in programming and work toward a healthy, empowered life.

Thanks to initiatives like No Lost Generation, Zahra has connected with other married girls. Together, she and her friends work through challenges and share their sadness. Most importantly, they create moments of joy when they are away from their marital homes, joking and gossiping in a UNHCR tent in an overcrowded refugee camp. Despite displacement and marriage, their childhood is not gone. “Sometimes,” Zahra admitted, “when I’m laughing with my new friends, it feels like it was before I was married.”

That laughter helps restore their dignity—and our collective humanity.