Finding a way out of child marriage and towards a vocation

Children run towards the sprawl of Domiz 1 camp in northeastern Iraq, where UNFPA-supported women’s and youth centres provide support and care for Syrian refugees. © UNHCR/B. Sokol/November 2012
  • 04 June 2018

DOHUK, Iraq – Aysheh was only 15 years old when she and her family fled Qamishli, northeastern Syria, to find refuge in Iraq in 2014. They ended up in Domiz 1 camp in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. 

Built rapidly and with little planning to accommodate the large numbers of refugees fleeing northern Syria in 2012, Domiz 1 is now home to 5,608 Syrian refugee families. They contend with overcrowding, and live in shelters in need of upgrading. And livelihood opportunities are scarce.

The dearth of options in the camp compelled Aysheh’s father to travel to Europe in search of better job prospects.

“I was devastated,” Aysheh told UNFPA. “Not only had I lost my friends and home, but now my father was leaving. I remember consoling myself that day and saying that at least I was fortunate to continue my education. I had plans to obtain a degree and then, when we return home, to work on rebuilding my community and country.”

But two years later, as the family continued to struggle, Aysheh’s stepmother decided to take her out of school and marry her off to a 45-year-old man. As Aysheh’s new husband, she hoped, he would support the family financially. 

“My life had meaning again”

While the number of child marriages occurring among Syrian refugees in Iraq is not available, research conducted among Syrian refugees elsewhere suggests a link between the poverty and instability facing displaced families like Aysheh’s, and rising pressure for girls to get married.

Feeling helpless, Aysheh sought help from the UNFPA-supported Zahrat Al-Yasamin women’s social centre in the camp.

After Aysheh told her story to the centre’s social workers, they reached out to her stepmother and explained the risks of child marriage and the repercussions it would have for an adolescent girl. They convinced her to allow Aysheh to go back to school and complete her education.

“I would not be exaggerating if I said that was the best day of my life. I couldn’t believe it. I had given up on the idea of having a normal life again,” Aysheh recalled. “I felt my life had meaning again.”

A livelihood and a goal

The Zahrat Al-Yasamin centre is one of 140 women’s centres supported by UNFPA as part of its emergency response throughout Iraq. In the Domiz 1 camp, UNFPA also supports a reproductive health unit within the Domiz hospital, as well as a youth centre. 

These facilities provide a spectrum of support and care for the camp’s women and young people. Services includes family planning, maternal health care, as well as counselling, psychosocial support, awareness sessions, recreational activities and life-skills courses.

After the successful intervention that got her back to school, Aysheh became a regular at the women’s centre, attending all the sessions on offer. When a part-time volunteering opportunity arose, she applied and was selected to shadow social workers, gaining the practical experience to take up the work herself.

“I feel content when I help women who are going through hard times,” said Aysheh. “They talk to me; I listen and advise them.” 

“Besides,” she added, “the sum I get in return helps me support my sibling and our family.” 

Now 19, Aysheh is determined to continue her work to help other girls and women. “My goal right now is to advocate against early and child marriages through the awareness sessions and activities conducted at the centre,” she said.

– Seepal Tayeb and Salwa Moussa

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