Lebanon – Men Peer Leaders Educating Other Men about the Damages of Child Marriage in Lebanon

By Louise
, WUNRN, Jan. 18, 2018

training sessions run by the UNFPA and led by male peer mentors, men in Lebanon
learn about the damaging impact of marriage on young girls and discuss
alternatives to marrying off their daughters. Hassan Chamoun

BEKAA, Lebanon – Roughly 20 men are packed into a local family center in West
Bekaa, Lebanon, an hour and a half drive from Beirut. They sit in rows, on lime
green chairs, and politely crane their necks to face whoever is talking.
Outside, the sun is slowly heating up, but in here, it’s dark and the air is
notably tense.
“I have
10 daughters under 18, and I will marry every single one of them,” says one
man, his back resting against a Mickey Mouse mural (the room also doubles as a
classroom). “Without it, my family wouldn’t survive.”
quickly erupts, and others shout before another voice cuts through the noise:
“And when you marry off your daughters, do you ask their
permission first?”
The group
falls silent, if only for a second.
“Do you
think a 14-year-old girl is able to take care of a newborn baby?”
Few men
in this room will have considered those questions before. Everyone here is a
refugee from either Syria or Palestine, two places where early marriage is
common. In Syria, in particular, the ongoing civil war has increased the
practice at an alarming rate.
“I was so
happy on my wedding day. I wore a beautiful white dress and felt so special.
But I didn’t know what was waiting for me. Life was so hard after that.”
The man
leading the group discussion, Adnan Ghazi, 44, is challenging generations of
ingrained beliefs about early marriage. Having fled Syria in 2013, he knows all
too well the strain felt by displaced families struggling to find work in a new
country. Marriage is often viewed as a way to protect girls against a cycle of
poverty and sexual exploitation. Families who can’t make ends meet may choose
to marry off their daughters rather than watch them starve.
“You see
marriage as a coping mechanism, but it doesn’t work,” Ghazi tells the group.
“Marry your child at 14 years old and she loses her education. You think you’re
solving your economic burden, but your children are suffering.”
Ghazi is
one of nine “peer mentors” selected by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA)
to lead regular training sessions that encourage men to rethink existing gender
roles. Orchestrated by local NGOs on the ground – the West Bekaa session is run
by Intersos – the
meetings aim to educate fathers about the physical, emotional and financial
damage that early marriage and childrearing can cause.
to Girls Not Brides, 15 million
 under the age of 18 are married every year worldwide. In
Lebanon, 6 percent of girls
are married
 by the time they reach 18, and figures are far
higher among the country’s large refugee population. Among Lebanon’s registered
Syrian refugee population of just under 1
, 41 percent of Syrian women aged between
20 and 24
 were married before 18.
six-year conflict only exacerbates the desperation of families trying to
protect their daughters from poverty and the gender-based violence that comes
with war – assault, rape, kidnapping. Many see marriage as the
only option.
‘She Was
a Kid’
knows firsthand the harm that marrying young can do. After graduating from university
and going through a string of girlfriends, he settled down with Adeline*, a
woman chosen for him by his mother. He was 27; she was just 14.
beginning of their marriage was hard; Adeline dropped out of school to care for
their children, which widened the already substantial gap in the pair’s
perspective and opinions.
couple have since raised six “beautiful” daughters – the oldest is 12 years
old, the youngest 4 – and after 17 years together, life has slowly fallen
into place.
“I have
no sons, but if I did, I wouldn’t discriminate between boys and girls,” Ghazi
says. “It’s completely the opposite, my girls are too spoilt. Even the
neighbors say I spoil them too much.”
Baalbek-Hermel, northeastern Lebanon, a man called Ghassan Idriss is also using
his own experience to fight child marriage.
Ghazi, Idriss is also a refugee from Syria and he also wedded a child bride.
Their age gap was slightly smaller – his wife Fatima was 16, he was 18 – but
they argued most days for the first five years of their marriage.
“She was
a kid,” Idriss says, sitting cross-legged on the floor of his home. A large TV
sits in the corner; shoes belonging to their four children are lined up neatly
outside the door. Idriss is another peer mentor involved in the UNFPA project.
He works with local NGO Amel Association and
holds sessions in the nearby refugee camp. “You start a family – in Arabic we
say ‘opening a house’ – but we had no idea how to do it.”
smiles, but agrees that she felt too young to be a mother.
“I was so
happy on my wedding day. I wore a beautiful white dress and felt so special.
But I didn’t know what was waiting for me. Life was so hard after that. The
kids, my husband’s demands, the housework – I couldn’t handle the
responsibilities. I went from joyous to very, very sad.”
Part of
the Solution
destructive impact of early marriage on a girl is well documented. Marrying
young usually means the end of her education and makes her vulnerable to domestic violence,
marital rape and contracting HIV. Child brides are also at high risk of complications
or death during pregnancy and childbirth
. Most programs aimed at
eradicating the practice target women and girls, but gender experts argue
change will only come if men and boys are also involved.
often, men alone make decisions regarding the priority of the couple and/or the
households, which perpetuates traditional gender roles and power imbalances,”
says a spokesperson from UNFPA. “To address these inequalities, men, male youth
and boys have a critical role to play. Promoting gender equality cannot be done
without the active involvement of men, male youth and boys.”
Like many
of the peer mentors, Ghassan Idriss, leading a session in Baalbek-Hermel,
Lebanon, meets a lot of resistance as he tries to challenge generations of
ingrained beliefs about the tradition of marrying daughters off when they are
young. (Hassan Chamoun)
why Idriss and Ghazi agreed to be mentors, but it’s not easy. Both face daily
opposition to their ideas, in part due to deep-seated gender norms that are
difficult to challenge. “I use my own experience and tell other men, ‘Learn
from me, it’s not a good thing,’” says Idriss. “I try to speak directly to
their hearts, but often they tell me to leave them alone. They think I’m
intervening in subjects that men should have nothing to do with.”
“I teach
my daughters to speak up, to have an opinion, and say whatever they want. I
hope they do better in life than me.”
Over the
next three years, the UNFPA will train 200 men to be peer leaders in their
communities, and in turn they will reach more than 18,000 men all over Lebanon
by inviting them to join the sessions.
“many, many” offers for his 18-year-old daughter’s hand in marriage, Idriss
refuses to accept. “A Lebanese man proposed to my daughter, but she wasn’t
interested and that is her decision,” he says. “She tells me about the U.N.
scholarships she wants to apply for. Who am I to stop her? She should – and
does – demand more.”
also talks about his dreams for his six daughters, none of which include
child marriage.
“I teach
my daughters to speak up, to have an opinion, and say whatever they want,” he
says. “I hope they do better in life than me.”
story is part of Manning Up,
Journalism Centre
 project about men engaging in the fight for
women’s rights, and was supported by The Fuller Project for
International Reporting.