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Missing Students: The Stories of 3 Child Brides

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She adds that all these marriages are illegal. In Iraq, the law stipulates that girls must reach 18 to marry even as the government tried—unsuccessfully for the moment—to lower the age to 9 in 2017. Regardless, the law can create issues for those girls who want a divorce.

“When they want to get divorced, they first have to wait to (turn 18) and then get married officially and get the marriage certificate,” Hanan said. “Then they can go to court and get a divorce.”

These days, when her family can find the money, Reem’s hope is to get a divorce, in spite of how that might stigmatize her in the community. She also plans to take the high school exit exam, go to university and finish her degree, get a job and be independent. “If I don’t score high enough on the exam to go to university for oil engineering, I will take the exam again,” she said. “I won’t give up.”

And she says if her 13-year-old sister ever asks her for advice, she would tell her: “If you have a plan for your future, if you want to finish your studies, you should not get married. Even if the family promises they will support you in this, you should not do it. And if our culture leads to pressure on you and your family to get married, don’t do it. You should work to make your dreams come true first.”

Nouzha: ‘I Will Never Let My Daughters Be Like Me’

Nouzha Al-Hussein was a 16-year-old student in Homs dreaming of becoming a doctor when her father forced her to marry.

Less than four years later, she found herself a mother of three children, a war widow, and yet another Syrian refugee fleeing to Lebanon.

Landing in a camp for widows and children in the Bekaa Valley, in eastern Lebanon, she eventually met a younger man and married again, having two more children.

These days, she says, life is one continuous battle. Her new husband is ill and can’t work—he needs surgery which they can’t afford. Nouzha, meanwhile, cleans houses and earns less than $10 a day. She and her family do not receive monthly aid from UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, even though they are registered with the agency and entitled to, she says, because of aid cutbacks in recent years.

Her oldest child is 12 and her youngest is almost 3. Her children are not able to go to school.

“My kids were not accepted in schools, there was no place for them,” she said. “I have been told to check with the Norwegian Refugee Council as it might help us but suddenly, we had the coronavirus and everything shut down.”

These days, Nouzha just thinks about being relocated to Canada by UNHCR, where she dreams of a better life for her children. She says she deeply regrets that she lost out on her opportunity to get an education. She is sure she would have had a better life if she had finished school.

“My old schoolmates became doctors and teachers,” she said. “I have no contact with them now but I am sure they are living better than me just because they completed their education.”

“My father beat me badly to leave my school and get married: I had to accept it,” she added. “But if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t ever accept it even if he killed me.”

As a result, Nouzha is adamant that her two daughters don’t marry before graduating from university. She won’t allow it.

“Even if there is a rich groom,” she said, “I will never let them get married early.”

“I want them to avoid the miserable life I have. I want them to have a better life … to grow up and enjoy life, to study and work, and earn good money,” she added. “Education is the only way to achieve this. There is no future without it.”

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