Image: UNFPA.

Lebanon's secret tragedy: Shedding light on child marriage

Amidst the laughter and triumphs, the question persists: Why? Why does society still cling to archaic traditions that rob young girls of their agency and autonomy?

CW: Discussion of sexual assault

Stepping into the living room with a heavy heart, I take hesitant strides, pausing at the threshold to survey the bustling scene before me. The room pulsates with activity, bathed in an almost blinding luminance that seems to accentuate every detail. Weary, I sink into the nearest sofa, seeking refuge from the cacophony that surrounds me.

As my eyes adjust to the glaring light, the room unfurls before me like a tapestry of disparate elements: the familiar faces of relatives, the clinking of coffee cups, and ashtrays brimming with spent butts. Women perch near the entrance, while men engage in impassioned debates at the room's core, their voices drowning in the fervor of political discourse. All around, scrutinizing gazes lingers, probing and assessing.

In the midst of it all, my grandfather fixes a scrutinizing gaze upon me, his words a blend of admonishment and expectation. "You're 16 now," he declares, his voice a thunderous whisper, "time to start thinking about marriage." In a voice tinged with defiance and determination, I respond: "I have the right to choose for myself. I am not bound by your expectations. I am free."

The sting of the first slap against my cheek fades into the night, leaving behind a faint mark and a lingering question: Why would my grandfather entertain the idea of marrying off a child? As I lay upon my pillow, thoughts whirl within me, weaving a tapestry of apprehension and doubt. Though I knew my own fate was secure, fear gnawed at me, prompting me to devise an escape from this looming specter.

Six years have passed since that pivotal moment, and I stand now as a journalist— independent, educated, and empowered — embracing the liberties denied to me in that suffocating room. Yet, amidst the laughter and triumphs, the question persists: Why? Why does society still cling to archaic traditions that rob young girls of their agency and autonomy?

In Lebanon, a country marred by turmoil yet buoyed by resilience, I reflect on my journey with a mixture of gratitude and indignation. I am fortunate to have escaped the fate my grandfather deemed suitable, but what about those women who weren't as fortunate? How many young girls across Lebanon and the Arab world endure the same fears, silenced by societal norms and legal loopholes?

Insights into Early Marriage and Education Disparities among Girls and Boys in Lebanon

In an effort to shed light on the frequency and ramifications of this issue, the Lebanese Women's Democratic Gathering (RDFL) embarked on the "National Study on Child Marriage in Lebanon." This groundbreaking report, drawing upon extensive statistics, data, and firsthand interviews, delves into the roots of child marriage within Lebanese society and strives to elucidate its underlying causes.

A recent study shed light on the prevalence of early marriage and its impact on education in Lebanon. The findings reveal that 20 percent of the general public tied the knot at the tender age of 18 or younger, with a staggering 87 percent of these early marriages being among females. Alarmingly, 10 percent of female respondents entered matrimony between the ages of 13 and 15, underscoring the concerning trend of very early marriages within this demographic.

Moreover, the study exposes disparities in educational attainment, particularly among those who didn't complete their schooling. Of these individuals, 56 percent were girls and 44 percent were boys. Delving deeper, it was found that 22 percent of girls were out of school compared to 34 percent of boys. Among the out-of-school demographic, a significant portion comprised Syrians, constituting 82 percent of boys and 80 percent of girls, with smaller percentages being Lebanese and Palestinian.

Despite challenges, a significant proportion of respondents, over 60 percent, expressed satisfaction with the age at which they were married. However, 31 percent wished they had waited longer, while only 6 percent indicated a preference for marrying at a younger age. Interestingly, there exists a disparity between the genders in terms of marital satisfaction, with males generally more content with their marital timing compared to females who often expressed a desire for a later marriage.

One striking revelation from the study is the differing perceptions of child marriage prevalence between boys and girls. Respondents overwhelmingly reported that child marriage is more prevalent among girls than boys, aligning with global trends where girls are disproportionately affected by early marriage.

These insights underscore the urgent need for targeted interventions to address early marriage and educational disparities, particularly among vulnerable populations, and to empower both girls and boys with opportunities for education and delayed marriage, thus breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty and inequality.

Overcoming Legal Barriers: The Struggle for Women's Rights in Lebanon

To understand a major roadblock on the path to eliminating child marriage in Lebanon, we need to zoom in on a little provision in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women known as Article 16. This article is pivotal in achieving genuine equality between genders in family and marital relations.

Another pain point is that in Lebanon, marital laws fall under the jurisdiction of "Sharia" and spiritual courts rather than comprehensive personal status laws, where there would be more legal room to implement a more humane minimum legal age for marriage, as is the case in countries like Australia, the United Kingdom, and America.

Decision-makers' reservations around implementing Article 16, relegating women's rights revolutions to the sidelines of personal status laws, and entrenching the dominance of religious authorities, amalgamate into a toxic brew feeding the crises and hardships in the lives of women across Lebanon.

It's time to let the arcane practice of child marriage go in Lebanon, so that girls and women can access new levels of freedom to craft lives of their own making.