Experience and Evidence: How War Affects Syrian Girls

Xanthe Ackerman is the founder of Advancing Girls’ Education in Africa and a journalist with The Fuller Project for International Reporting (FPIR)
Maisam Alahmed is a student at Northeastern University under the King Abdullah Scholarship Program and student fellow at FPIR

A Syrian girl studying in a school for refugees in southern Turkey
Photo credit: Xanthe Ackerman

Istanbul – Over dark coffee at a community center in downtown Istanbul we recently discussed girls’ education with young  women from Syria.

The war in Syria disrupted people’s lives dramatically, but the impact on girls’ education varies. Reem, a young Damascene woman wearing a silk headscarf, told us that she studied law in Syria before the war broke out in 2011. She hasn’t been able to finish her university degree as a refugee in Turkey, but she says the barriers she faces aren’t because of her gender. Lama, a Palestinian-Syrian who has missed two years of high school while in Turkey, says that among impoverished families, “to protect a girls’ reputation, when the opportunity comes a father marries his daughters off.” Once a girl is engaged, according to Lama, “she has to avoid gossiping neighbors, and so she doesn’t go out.”

Although there is surprisingly little evidence about the impact of the Syrian war on girls’ education – given the rapid response mindset that pervades many humanitarian institutions – the few glimpses that we have are disturbing. Although Syria had achieved near gender parity in secondary and even tertiary education before the war, data on university enrollment suggests those gains are eroding. In 2014, male Syrians outnumbered female Syrians more than three to one at universities.

Among some refugee communities, child marriage is on the rise – the rate has as much as doubled for girls in Jordan, according to one report. Coming from a society that emphasizes the importance of protecting women, families that lost their homes and livelihoods may be more likely to marry their daughters to ensure the girls’ wellbeing, and even to guard against sexual abuse in camps. Research currently underway in Zaatari Camp in Jordan finds that in some cases girls themselves push to get married before they reach legal age, in the absence of other viable opportunities, and adults consent hoping to prevent rape and premarital sex.

The consequence of child marriage is often that a girl enters a marriage with little say over her own affairs, and that her husband expects her to give up her education. In addition to exploitative marriages, reports of extortion and prostitution in southern Turkey show the dire straits women and girls face after the chaos of war.

Some Syrians, even those working with refugee youth, do not consider girls’ education a priority or child marriage a major concern. While recently in Lebanon, we visited with the head of a Syrian-run program for refugee education. He denied that girls’ education is an issue at all, saying, “We used to have child marriage back in Syria, so this isn’t really something that we consider an issue.” In reality, both Syrian boys and girls affected by the four-year long war face gender-related challenges, depending on contextual factors, like family culture and religion, poverty, insecurity and migration. Boys inside of Syria have to contend with military service requirements, and often work in demeaning conditions to support their families.

Surprisingly, for some girls the war has created a welcome opening. Lama just received asylum in Europe, and will begin high school again in September. In the meantime, she volunteers at the community center, helping host events with youth from all over the world. Lama’s eyes shone as she told us, “Tradition doesn’t affect me now. We are out of Syria and we make our own culture.”



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