As the stress of conflict takes its toll, many Syrian families are succumbing to ruptures within their own homes. It’s manifesting in higher rates of divorce, which is affecting Syrians from all religions and ethnic backgrounds.
“A fragment hit my husband and caused his foot to be amputated, which prevented him from continuing his work as a driver,” says Samira, from Yarmouk camp, who is now living in Kesweh. The accident left him unemployable. Along with financial shortages and displacement from their home, it strained the couple’s relations beyond repair.
“The burdens on us were increased,” she says. “We had to rent a shared apartment with my husband’s brothers. Aid was never enough and raising five children in such circumstances is very difficult, so I had to clean building stairs, a job that did not satisfy my husband and made him nervous. He quarreled with me every time I went to clean.
“I’m not [satisfied] with what I’m doing and I understand my husband’s anger after becoming disabled, but I’m in dire need of work to provide for my children. He already divorced me once then took me back after our relatives intervened, and he is threatening to divorce me again. Now I have to lie about having the job so he won’t know that I’m still working.”
She says her husband’s psychological state continued to deteriorate as he sat largely immobile, and that he directed his anger at his wife and children.
Sana’a, a social worker from Damascus, works at one of the many shelters for displaced families in Syria. The conflict “has increased the stress in families,” she says. “The husband has his own suffering, carrying a lot of pressure and unloading it into his family, the mother is trying to bear her financial and psychological state and is then exercising violence on her children.
“The cycle of violence and problems in the family continues, and divorce is one result of these problems.”
These issues, she adds, extend to all sectors of Syrian society.
Combined with the newly high divorce rate, fewer people are getting married, pointing to a shift in Syria’s social order. “The number of new marriages was reduced by more than 70 percent in the last 10 months,” says Rasha, a lawyer dealing with marital issues, versus “the increase of registered divorce cases to 80 percent. The unprecedented rate of divorce is threatening the whole Syrian society.”
Courts in Damascus show there were 5,000 registered cases of divorce in 2011, before the start of the conflict. There is no official data for the years since. But their statistics also show that marriage rates have declined steadily, from 22,117 new unions in 2009 to 20,300 in 2012.
Rasha blames the wartime economy and the desperate situation of many families for the fluctuation. “It is one of the biggest reasons why people are reluctant to get married now,” she says.
Hiba, from Sahnaya, is a mother of two who was divorced at the beginning of this year. “Like all married people we had our arguments, but they were increased after he went to fight with his military unit and took us to live with his parents,” she says.
“He became angry and tense all the time, hitting me and the children. I couldn’t take it anymore, especially because I had lots of pressures on me, and problems with his parents. I wanted a divorce, and he and his parents [threatened] to take away my kids.”
Maryam works at a school in the Damascus countryside in Khan Dannoun. She cautions that problems at home take a toll not just on parents, but their children. As the children’s worlds crumble, so now are many of their families.
“The number of students who come from broken families is increasing,” says Maryam. “It’s directly affecting their health and academic performance. Children [of recent divorce] cry and talk about the violence that’s going on in their families. They wish to see their parents together again.”
Shadi, age 10, has lived with his sister at their grandparents’ house in Khan Dannoun refugee camp since their parents’ divorce last year. “My mother got remarried and my father went to Lebanon seeking work,” he explains, “and left us to live at our grandmother’s house. She is nice but old, gets sick a lot and doesn’t know how to help us study.”
Photo: Courtesy Abeer Etefa / World Food Programme