This report comes as part of the "Not on the Margins" project, which sheds light on freedoms, and sexual and reproductive health and rights in Lebanon
"I married him because my mother told me he would buy me ice cream every day”, and “I married him because he takes me to the restaurant" are the stories of two young girls, Arwa and Rawda, who belong to a never-ending collection of tales that tell the stories of dreams buried inside a cage called early marriage.
These tragic stories have prompted ActionAid, a global organization that operates in several Arab countries, most notably Lebanon and Jordan, to shed light on them and work to raise awareness on early marriage. ActionAid is an NGO that gives priority in the Arab region to the leadership of women and youth, especially individuals living in poverty and exclusion, with the aim of achieving social justice, gender equality, and poverty eradication.
In the fight against early marriage, and raising awareness on reproductive and sexual health in Lebanon, the organization launched several campaigns under the titles, “Her Story”, “Not Before 18”, and “My period: A Story of Life”.
“My period: A Story of Life”
A group of volunteers from the women of the area that the organization intends to work on was assigned to conduct field research and consult locals on the ground to find out what the basic needs and priorities of the community are, including those of women in particular.
The volunteers spoke with women about their priorities, and the research study concluded that reproductive and sexual health still lacks the adequate knowledge and resources in order to be properly accessed and used.
Another reason that encouraged “ActionAid - Arab Region” to pay attention to the reproductive health file in recent years — and is seen by Sabine Abi Aad, the organization's regional coordinator for communication and campaigns, as very remarkable in recent times — is brushing aside issues related to women, their rights, and needs to the sidelines during crises, which contributed to the worsening of the situation of women and refugees in Lebanon.
"I married him cause my mother told me he'd buy me ice cream every day”, and “I married him cause he takes me to restaurants" are the stories of two young girls in a collection of tales that tell the stories of dreams buried inside a cage called early marriage
The campaign, “My period: A Story of Life”, was carried out in cooperation with the Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering RDFL, and “its main goal was to inform women about their reproductive and sexual rights," Abi Aad tells Raseef22, such as defining basic rights like deciding on the number of children, the right timing for childbirth and have children freely, and the means to do so, while making decisions related to reproduction responsibly and free from discrimination, coercion, and violence, along with having the freedom to choose a partner.
The information that the organization had intensified efforts to disseminate included the definition of violence that women may be exposed to, such as forced abortion, marital rape, and marital violence, along with ways to prevent them in cooperation with specialists in all related fields.
Lack of resources
Women in rural areas, villages, and refugee camps in Lebanon suffer from a lack of access to the necessary resources to secure their sexual and reproductive needs, due to the poor distribution of health centers and the deteriorating economic situation in these areas, as well as because the government ignores these needs and considers them non-essential.
Many women have resorted to unsafe means to secure their needs as a result of the deteriorating situation, with some resorting to reusing the same sanitary pads and using unsafe alternatives.
According to a study conducted by the Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering RDFL in cooperation with ActionAid on the health and reproductive conditions following the economic crisis in the Joub Jannine region in the Beqaa Valley, it was found that 68% of women have changed their priorities health care to that of food and housing, 70% are now using lower quality sanitary pads, 18% do not have the freedom to choose the most appropriate timing for childbirth. In addition, 41% do not know about sexually transmitted diseases, 33% do not know about sexual relations and contraception, 49% go to hospitals outside the Joub Jannine area for medical examination, and 30% had no prior information about their menstrual cycle at puberty.
Many women have resorted to unsafe means to secure their needs as a result of the deteriorating situation, with some resorting to reusing the same sanitary pads and using unsafe alternatives
From here came the need for more than just raising awareness, distributing leaflets, and holding dialogue sessions, so ActionAid sought to help in securing basic needs. It distributed sanitary pads in areas where it was able to study their needs, in addition to mapping the nearest health centers, each according to the area closest to it.
On the difficulties that the work team and volunteers encountered to reach the necessary results, Sabine Abi Aad says, "We faced problems in setting up the campaigns at the beginning. On one occasion, the father of a girl adamantly refused to have us talk to her when he heard about the goals of the campaign. The word ‘sexual’ was sufficient enough to arouse his anger, since most of the time, people consider it as some sort of encouragement to have sexual relations, which is the same reason why we once removed the word ‘sexual’ from the title of a seminar so that the men would agree to let us speak with their wives and daughters."
She adds, "Although the topic was not easy at all, we were able to help many women and girls."
From victim to volunteer
"I used to think marriage was a beautiful thing." Anyone who reads the story of Ghufran al-Rifai wouldn’t know how to describe it: Is it inspiring or cruel?
Ghufran married early when she was under the age of 18. She left her education and turned to married life.
She believed it was the solution to be able to go wherever she wanted, whenever she wanted to, but she discovered that she was not up to the responsibility that was placed upon her shoulders and that she would not be able to raise the children. She says, "The most difficult thing was clashing with the idea of dealing with my husband and his family. I could not keep up with them when it came to the customs and traditions required of me. I was shocked by society, and paid my childhood and my future as the price for this experience."
Ghofran decided to change her reality and support those who need to learn from her experience, so she volunteered at ActionAid, and her concept of marriage changed.
Ghufran now encourages parents to not rob girls of their childhood and not marry them off at an early age.
Lack of awareness
"A large number of married underage girls do not know the meaning of pregnancy and ovulation," says obstetrician and gynecology specialist Bahaa Sukkarieh.
Sukkarieh explains to Raseef22 how the lack of awareness among most girls before early marriage can lead to disastrous consequences for both the health of both the mother and the fetus, "Many girls come to me without prior knowledge of the details of their pregnancy. Once one of them asked me: How do we get pregnant? When can pregnancy occur? What is ovulation and when does it happen? How is the delivery done and what are the necessary preparations for the operation?”
He continues, "Sometimes, the mother goes through nine months of pregnancy without being followed up by a specialized doctor, and this matter of course is reflected in the care for herself and her fetus during pregnancy.”
At the health level, there is a risk for the mother when she becomes pregnant at a young age, as the reproductive system, from the uterus to the ovaries, is not yet complete, and reproductive hormones are unstable, according to Sukkarieh, "These causes lead to physical trauma that accompanies psychological trauma when having sex, and the trauma varies according to the strength of the partner in the practice. On the other hand, adolescents are more susceptible to sexually transmitted diseases and cervical cancer due to hormone instability and poor knowledge of personal care in that area and how to practice safe sex."
"My children’s needs and mine were the same"
“Just jump, you’ll miscarry”, and “Drink cinnamon, and you’ll lose it right away”; Most teenage girls do not know about contraception, and when an unwanted pregnancy takes place, primitive abortion methods are resorted to based on what’s prevalent in the surrounding community, especially when a woman resorts to the most primitive means, which entails inserting foreign objects into the vagina to ensure immediate abortion, which later causes severe infections that may lead to permanent disorders.
Fetal health is also greatly influenced by the age of the expectant mother, as the chance of giving birth to a child with health problems increases the younger the mother is, along with a higheer risk of spontaneous miscarriage.
"I got married at a very young age, and I don't even remember if it was 15 or 16. I didn't know anything about marriage. I rather didn't even know anything about my husband. I never saw him before the wedding night," Amal (pseudonym) tells Raseef22.
“Many girls come to me without prior knowledge of the details of their pregnancy. One once asked me: How do we get pregnant? What is ovulation and when does it happen? How is the delivery done and what are the necessary preparations for the operation?”
The sixty-something woman recalls her memories now after she’s had four children, "My mother did not explain anything to me about the wedding night, and not once did she tell me what it means to be a wife. She only told me that my husband and his mother, who would become like my mother without me ever having met her, would educate and raise me.”
She adds, "My husband and I lived in his family’s house. I was subjected to marital abuse and domestic violence in the house of my mother-in-law, who I was told was my "second mother". She used to hurt and abuse me so that I would allow my husband to cheat on me, saying they were just whims that will inevitably end in the future. I couldn't raise my children, as our needs were often the same. How can I give them enough nurturing and affection when I am also in need of it, and where will I even get it from?"
Amal goes on to retell her story of suffering and submission, "I lived my whole life replying to orders, and answering to my husband, his mother, and his father sometimes. I would work from early morning to late night. To this day, I have not been able to give my opinion on any matters related to my children, and I have not experienced the meaning of love or independence. Rather I have never even dared to dream of them.”
The trauma of marriage
On the first day of marriage, the negative feelings of an underage minor begin to appear. In most cases the girl marries a man she does not want under pressure from a member of her family, as an adolescent is more vulnerable to physical and psychological violence without having sufficient ability to defend herself, according to the World Health Organization.
In this regard, psychologist Alyssa Rashdan tells Raseef22, "It is difficult for a woman to have a physical relationship before she discovers her own body. This negatively affects her mental health and can develop into a state of psychological trauma that may cause physical problems, including miscarriage."
Another reason that Rashdan sees as a component of negative emotions is when a minor is deprived of living her childhood in a healthy way, and consequently suffers from a lack of affection and tenderness, "Some girls suffer from a severe lack of self-confidence, after they become accustomed to receiving orders and not participating in decision-making, no matter how important they are in their lives, starting from parents to husbands and their common environment."
She sees that, in addition to all these factors, there are pressures and responsibilities that the girl is not ready to face and live with, and therefore can be accompanied by anxiety and depression.
"It is difficult for a woman to have a physical relationship before she discovers her own body. This negatively affects her mental health and can develop into a state of psychological trauma that may cause physical problems, including miscarriage"
The issue of raising the age of marriage is still a matter of debate in Lebanese circles. Several organizations have worked intensively to provide a legal framework to raise this issue in the Lebanese parliament, under the issue of the Unified Personal Status Law.
This file is still subject to the various personal status laws of religious sects, which means that the minimum age for marriage is determined by religious legislation, and can be as low as 15 for males and 9 for females.
Organizations have used health, social, and psychological studies to show the impact of underage marriage on their mental and physical health, while the pressure of religious institutions to prevent the adoption of what opposes religious legislation is still very great.