Salwa, a 14 year old girl, remembers chugging bleach for as long as she could. She ignored the burn as it went down her throat, and she tuned out the sound of gunshots outside her window.
But Salwa, a Syrian refugee, wasn’t trying to escape the Syrian war — she was trying to escape her forced marriage.
In Lebanon, nearly 40% of young Syrian refugee girls are being married off by impoverished families who erroneously believe that they are protecting their daughters against sexual assault. Often they are wedded off to much older men who rape and beat them if they refuse to sleep with them.
Such was Salwa’s case. Her drunk husband wanted to have sex, but Salwa said she would be right back. She left the room and tried to poison herself.
“I returned to the bedroom and thought, this will be the last time,” said Salwa. “When I woke up the next morning, I said, ‘F*ck you, God.’”
The Times of Israel reports that this isn’t an isolated case:
Halima’s death certificate says she fell down the stairs. But according to SB Overseas — an NGO working with Syrian refugees across Lebanon, including Halima’s camp — the 13-year-old actually killed herself.
It started one night in October, when she ran away from her abusive husband at a refugee camp outside Beirut. She fled back to her family and asked if they’d help her divorce him. No way, was their answer, she had to stay with him. So, that night, Halima overdosed on pills.
SB Overseas has noticed how common suicide has become among child brides — and how often families lie about it.
“They cannot admit the decision they made led to this result,” said Veronica Lari, a former spokesperson for SB Overseas. “What happens often is girls disappear completely. We know it’s a consequence of the marriage, but we don’t have any data or news from her. And the family says they don’t know anything.”
Hasan Arfeh, a Syrian journalist, has even noticed the same trend in Syria.
“Parents know their daughter committed suicide, but in small communities in Syria, they hide the issue,” Arfeh said. “They feel ashamed of the community around them. They do not offer the body to the forensic doctor, claiming it is the body of a girl and they have the right not to show it.”
In Lebanon, Syrian girls face an uphill battle against forced marriage. There is no minimum age for marriage in the country as the government allows religious parties to decide. On top of this, martial rape is not criminalized.
Lebanon has also created a rule that Syrians can only work in temporary, low-paying sectors including agriculture, construction and cleaning. With families unable to provide for their children, many parents see marriage as a ticket out of poverty.
Monthly cash support from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is one saving grace, but its severely underfunded and only able to reach 13% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
Until Syrian families find a way out of poverty, the trend of abused child brides turning to suicide will likely continue.
Child brides like Layla, a 16 year Syrian refugee threw herself into a river knowing she couldn’t swim. Her sister managed to save her.
“I thought, ‘I want to die. It’s better than living this miserable life,’” said Layla.