As the founder of the Lebanese education and social development nongovernmental organization Sawa Association for Development, Nawal Mdallaly works with female Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. She described the situation refugee girls are facing now in an interview with Al-Fanar Media. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Al-Fanar Media: Can you describe the situation for refugee girls in Lebanon since the pandemic began?
Mdallaly: Before Covid-19 and the Beirut blast (in August), 25 percent of Lebanese households and 75 percent of the refugees were under the poverty line. Now … the situation is very fragile.
In the camps, Covid-19 mainly affected the girls because the education programs (for them) were closed on March 15. Speaking mainly about refugees, the big problem is child marriage, much more so than with the Lebanese. Still, it’s a big problem for all these children to continue their education—63 percent of them (are out of) school.
Some NGOs have continued their work via online education, but this has many issues: First, not all parents and children have cellphones. … The second obstacle is that there is no money … to charge their cellphones and pay for wi-fi. Third, it’s not easy for a child to remain for two or three hours on the phone—they need electricity.
Then, in the camps, the families prefer that the boys continue their studies. The girls are not a priority for the families.
Al-Fanar Media: Why is there a preference for boys?
Mdallaly: When they have a girl, they say it’s bad luck. They prefer boys because they say that a girl’s life is not easy … They don’t like to provide education for girls. … That’s why the number of boys is greater than the number of girls in the schools, especially in the refugee camps. Also, if a girl is not married, they will send her to the fields to work. It’s all so obvious in all the refugee camps in Bekaa.
It’s usually the mother and the girls, the children, who work. The father mainly stays in the tent. It’s a tradition (brought) from Syria … because most of them are Bedouins. So the men don’t work. … You can see in Bekaa Valley that the fields are all planted by girls. …. You can see them working in the fields, overseen sometimes by their brother, who is acting like a manager. …You won’t see boys gathering potatoes or vegetables— it’s always girls.
Syrian refugee families, they profit from their children: They don’t care about their safety or their education because there is poverty. So the priority will be to provide food—for that they force the girls to work or to get married at an early age.
For them, it’s not a problem if the girl gets married at 12 because she will be helping them: They will be eliminating a member of the family—they won’t have to pay for her anymore. ‘Let her be married then we don’t have to pay for her, the husband can take care of her,’ they think. They see girls like a sink (where the money just flows down and disappears).
(Now) we don’t know by how much (child marriage has increased) but we see many of them putting on weddings for the girls inside the camp. Even with Covid-19 around, there are weddings inside the camps.
“We don’t know by how much (child marriage has increased) but we see many of them putting on weddings for the girls inside the camp. Even with Covid-19 around, there are weddings inside the camps.”
Can you describe specific situations that stick in your mind?
Mdallaly: In one of the camps here, the officials contacted us and said we know of a family here who wants to force this young girl to get married and asked us to help. So we went there, and the father said, ‘Can you pay me, monthly, $100, so I don’t do this? I don’t want to marry her off.’
Also, there was a girl in Bar Elias camp, she was 16. Her parents are dead so she lived with her two brothers, who were exploiting her. They married her to a Lebanese man of around 45. She stayed with that man for two months, and then he divorced her, and she returned to the camp. The brothers took money from this man—it’s a custom in Islam, when a man wants to marry a woman, he must pay money to the family, to the father.
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So the two brothers took money from this guy and then he divorced her—it’s like prostitution. And after two months, they tried to marry her off to another man. So the camp called us and we went there. The girl—she’s not even 16, she’s a baby—so she doesn’t know what she’s doing, what’s going on. She told us, ‘my brother wants me to get married (again)—it’s not her wish. So we called Himaya (another local NGO) and told them about the situation and they called the Lebanese internal security forces and they removed her from the camp, taking her to a shelter.
Now, are you worried that that you’re going to see a spike in child marriage because of the pandemic?
Mdallaly: If the situation in Lebanon stays the same, it will increase and not only for the (Syrian) refugees, also for Lebanese girls and for the Palestinians. In Akkar, in the north, there are many cases of child marriage now involving Lebanese girls. … People are struggling in the villages.
In the camps, it’s bad: They lack the boxes (donations) of food, the basics. And they can’t work because it isn’t allowed for them to leave the camp (because of Covid-19). But they need food for the family.
Also, the minister of education announced that there is a big problem for education this year. First, many students … will leave the private schools to go to public schools because of the economic crisis. In 187 public schools, the first shift in the morning is for the Lebanese, the second shift in the afternoon is for the Syrians. Now, they will make the second shift for Lebanese students. I don’t know what will happen to the Syrian students in the afternoon shift. Until now, the minister of education doesn’t have a solution. Can you imagine? They don’t have a solution for this problem, and it’s a big problem.
Do you know girls in the camp who might succeed in spite of all these issues and obstacles?
Mdallaly: There’s a girl, 13, she’s very clever. Her mother, 26, got married at 13 in Homs and had three children, then her husband was killed and she fled. Then in the camp, she married a young guy, I think he is 19 or 20: When I saw him, I said, ‘Don’t marry him. He wants money,’ he wants the assistance that comes from the NGOs. Sure enough, she married him and she had two more children and he did nothing but stay in the tent and forced her to pay for his cigarettes from the $50 a month from UNHCR. Then he ran away, left her with children and now she’s alone, with five children in the tent.
What helps to change the situation for these girls?
Mdallaly: Education is a must for the girls, and vocational training. … If there is any girls’ empowerment program or specific education for girls, I think it will reduce child marriage or completely prevent it in the poorer regions.
When they have money, the parents don’t interfere, don’t marry them off—their parents want money to pay for the rent and food. So when the girls don’t work, the parents prefer to marry her off.
(Our) organization provides vocational training: for males, auto mechanics; for females, cosmetology, how to do manicures and makeup, that sort of thing. Now, (some girls who have been through our program) are working from their homes … doing nails, makeup, also for brides.
I believe that education and vocational training are the solutions because when a family sees that their girls are working and earning money, they don’t force her to get married at an early age. They see her bringing money into the household and they shut up.