Three years ago, Raneem Abras escaped the conflict raging in her hometown of Aleppo in Syria and moved with her family to the Chouf Mountains in Lebanon. A neighbor told Raneem, who is the eldest of five, about a youth program that trains boys and girls to reach out to their fellow young people and raise awareness about reproductive health and gender-based violence. She was curious to find out more and has been going regularly ever since.
“After every session I attend, I wish I could go around educating everyone I know,” says Raneem, 16, sitting under a tree outside a community center run by the Italian humanitarian organization INTERSOS. “These long discussions about marriage and having babies were particularly useful.”
Raneem’s mother, Um Abdo, nods her head in approval. “I am so glad Raneem heard these things,” she says. “I had told her many times before that I would never allow her to get married young.”
Of the nearly 5 million people who have fled Syria because of the conflict, more than 1 million are registered as refugees in Lebanon, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). They live in more than 1,700 communities and locations across the country, often sharing small basic lodgings with other refugee families in overcrowded conditions. Working within host communities, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) helps local groups respond to the sexual and reproductive health needs of refugees, while also educating them against and protecting them from gender-based violence.
The organization also jointly runs programs with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Lebanon to help empower young people through activities that build their awareness on issues essential to their well-being, including risks of early marriage, sexual reproductive health and gender equality. Since last year, UNFPA and INTERSOS have been using peer-to-peer techniques to spread information about health and gender-based violence. Their training centers teach boys and girls how to take what they have learned and, using a life-skills approach, share it with their friends.
Three groups of young men and women around Mount Lebanon are already actively engaging with boys and girls in their community, using safe spaces set up by UNFPA and INTERSOS for them to meet and share life skills and health knowledge. To date, the group of youth peers like Raneem has reached out to more than 1,300 young men and women in Mount Lebanon.
Raneem’s mother talks about how she herself had been formally engaged at age 12 to her 18-year-old cousin back in Syria. The child in her fought her parents’ wish to see her married, and she was able to break off the engagement and wait until she met her current husband a few years later. “Several people have approached me to ask about [marrying] Raneem, but my husband and I told them off,” Um Abdo says, with a laugh. “You should see Raneem explaining to them the consequences of early marriage on a woman’s health. I am so happy listening to her.”
Out of the nearly 70,000 adolescent girls registered as Syrian refugees in Lebanon, 23 percent of them married before 18 years of age. Advocates and groups working to cut the prevalence of child marriage say the involvement of parents, older family members, boys and men in the family is crucial to effectively changing social practices, particularly on early marriage, early pregnancy and gender-based violence.
“I will only accept that Raneem gets married when I am sure that she is mature enough for such a responsibility,” says Um Abdo. “But for now, I still see her as a child.”
Raneem’s father, Abo Abdo, agrees. “I would not even allow my sons to get married young,” he says. “Marriage means responsibilities and being up to the task. How can I expect children to act as grown-ups when they are not yet ready for it?”