“When he asked to marry me, I had no other options, so I agreed right away,” she recalls. Iman had never met him before. She was 15.
Now, as a 19-year-old wife and mother, Iman is determined to continue her education not only for herself but for her four-year-old daughter, Rima.
The United Nations reports that early marriage at a global level is on the decline. However, the Syrian crisis has sparked displacement, instability, and poverty – all of which are contributing to an alarming increase in the rate of early marriages.
Iman is one of these women. This is her story.
Iman was among the first waves of Syrian refugees to cross Jordan’s northern border in 2013. She settled with her family in a new camp that would later become the largest in Jordan, housing some 80,000 refugees. When she arrived with her estranged father and stepmother, services inside Za’atari camp were just being set up.
The camp materialized within a matter of two weeks to accommodate the thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing daily attacks against the city of Dara’a in southwestern Syria. In the early days, access to running water and electricity were scarce. Tents frequently collapsed and left no privacy between the young and old, which only aggravated existing tensions within Iman’s family. She yearned for an escape.
One day, that escape presented itself in the form of a loud knock on her family’s tent from a man she’d never met before.
“I used to think that marriage was the ultimate escape from this difficult situation. Now, I know that education is a better path,” shares Iman.
Iman secretly wished that her marriage would lead to new opportunities, far from the influences of her conservative family, but those hopes soon vanished. Shortly after their wedding, Iman and her new husband moved into a caravan less than 100 feet from her former home – and her father’s watchful eye. A few weeks later, Iman learned that she was pregnant.
By educating girls about the realities of marrying before they're ready, girls can question for themselves whether an early marriage is the right decision for them.
Hundreds of girls like Iman in Za’atari camp are forced into early marriage each year. As the Syrian conflict enters its eighth year, many families have exhausted their limited resources and are living in difficult circumstances. Driven to extreme measures by poverty, families are increasingly marrying off their daughters as a means to achieve a degree of financial stability. The result: child brides, many of whom come from poor families, become even more likely to remain trapped within the cycle of poverty.
“We cannot prevent it completely. But by educating girls about the realities of marrying before they’re ready, girls can question for themselves whether an early marriage is the right decision for them,” shares Relief International’s Center Coordinator Khawla Al Munzel. “We’ve also employed solutions like free childcare at our centers to ensure that young mothers do not have to miss out on their education simply because they have a child.”
Today, Za’atari is a functioning micro-city complete with entrepreneurial enterprises, private gardens, and what residents jokingly nicknamed the “Champs Elysées,” a bustling shopping street where you can buy fresh vegetables, bikes, candies, and other household necessities.
Despite her home’s close proximity to this busy street, Iman quickly grew tired of the routine of married life and began to withdraw from the world around her, spending most of her time inside her caravan. She’d spend hours staring blankly through a barred window in her home, watching as girls, most of whom were younger than her, walked back and forth to school each day.
Iman’s conservative family forced her to drop out of school in the fifth grade, long before the war in Syria broke out. But as a married woman now living in a different country, Iman had hoped for the chance to resume her studies. However, a Jordanian law referred to as the “three-year rule” prevents students out of school for more than three years from attending government-funded schools.
“At this point, I had begun to lose all hope that I’d ever return to school,” explains Iman. It wasn’t until she received another unexpected knock on her caravan’s door – this time from a volunteer with Relief International promoting a new program for out-of-school students – that her dream was reignited. The Drop Out program offers a pathway for students, many of whom have been out of school for years, to resume their studies by enrolling in a rigorous 18-month program. After graduation, students can register for classes at Jordanian schools inside the camps or find jobs to supplement their family’s income.
Finally, Iman saw a real, tangible opportunity to resume her studies. With one small catch: she’d have to go back to school with four-year-old Rima at her side.
With no one else to look after her daughter, Iman took Rima with her to class every day. While her teachers diagrammed sentences on the board, Iman’s attention had to constantly shift away from the day’s lesson and onto Rima. “When she cries or calls out for me, it can be difficult to focus on my work,” shares Iman. “I couldn’t concentrate most days during class because I was constantly worrying about Rima.”
As early marriage skyrocketed across the camp, so did the need for professional childcare. Teachers at Relief International’s centers used to fill this gap in services by watching their students’ children whenever there was a break in their teaching schedules.
“I know it was an enormous help to my students when I would look after their children, even if only for one class period. For them, it was an hour of complete concentration on their studies,” shares Manar Al Had, a math teacher in Relief International’s Drop Out program.
But this wasn’t a sustainable solution. Instead, through a strategic partnership with UNICEF, OCHA and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Relief International launched Early Childhood Development centers in both Azraq and Za’atari refugee camps. Stocked with toys, cribs and professional caregivers, these daycare centers offer young mothers the support they need to continue their education, while ensuring their children are well looked after. They’re located next door to Relief International’s classrooms, a proximity that lets young mothers drop off their children before class, visit them during breaks, and pick them up after study groups. Meanwhile, the children at our daycare centers spend the day learning new skills to prepare them for kindergarten.
“While other Early Childhood Development centers in the camp will only accept kids that are three years or older, Relief International will look after kids as young as one day old so that their mothers do not have to put their education on hold,” shares Fatima, 36, an educator at one of Relief International’s Early Childhood Development centers
After graduating from Relief International’s Drop Out program, Iman doesn’t know if she will continue down the path towards higher education. While she once planned to pursue a degree in law, she also knows she has to be realistic – not only for herself, but for her daughter. Instead, she’s planning to find a job as a hairdresser or makeup artist inside the camp.
“Education is a weapon in a woman’s hands,” says Iman. “What drives me to seek an education more than anything else is to be a role model for my daughter. One day, I hope that she will be more educated than I am and do all of the things I couldn’t do. Perhaps she’ll even grow up to be a doctor.