BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As 17-year-old Aziza sat in her dark tent in a refugee camp, she rocked her baby while her tiny hands adjusted his pacifier, looking down at all she had left from two broken marriages.
Aziza’s parents arranged for her to marry her cousin when she was 14. Her mother, Rashida, said it was normal for girls her age to become brides in their Syrian tribe as it protected them from harassment and reduced pressure on the family budget.
“I regret that I got married,” Aziza, who declined to give her full name, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as her eyes welled up with tears.
“The girls that are my age are now studying. They have ambition. I have nothing. I am totally destroyed.”
A growing number of girls among the 1.5 million Syrian refugees who have fled to Lebanon since 2011 are becoming wives amid rising poverty, aid groups said on the eighth anniversary of the conflict.
Around one in five Syrian girls aged between 15 and 19 in Lebanon is married, according to the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF), which fears more young girls will be married off by families that cannot afford food, rent and medicines.
More than three quarters of the refugees in Lebanon are living below the poverty line and struggling to survive on less than $4 per day, UNICEF said.
Kafa, a local rights group, is calling on Lebanon to pass a law to make 18 the minimum age for marriage.
There is no minimum age of marriage in Lebanon. Religious communities’ personal status laws can allow girls younger than 15 to marry, according to Human Rights Watch.
The rights group said Lebanon is behind many other countries in the region that have set 18 as the minimum marriage age, including Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates.
“It is escalating ... because they are living in a very closed community,” said Salwa Al Homsi, a spokeswoman for Kafa.
“The parents, they cannot afford to support their children.”
Aziza lives with her mother, father and five siblings in a small tent covered in plastic sheets in eastern Lebanon’s fertile Bekaa Valley - home to more than 300,000 refugees, the most densely populated area of refugees in Lebanon.
They escaped their hometown of Aleppo five years ago.
“My life in Syria was beautiful,” said Aziza, whose small-frame and adolescent features make her look younger than her years - a striking image of a child holding a child.
“I used to go to school ... and wanted to be a doctor,” said Aziza whose favorite subject was Arabic.
Her father and two of her sisters earn about 6,000 Lebanese Pounds ($4) a day, picking grapes and potatoes seasonally.
“I have four daughters, I can’t give them everything they need,” said Rashida, adding that poverty was one reason they decided that Aziza should marry her 17-year-old cousin.
Aziza said she did not oppose the marriage at first, but she divorced after one year because of troubles with her mother-in-law and moved back into her parents’ tent.
When other refugees in her community started to “gossip” about her because she was divorced, she said the shame drove her into a second marriage, aged 16, to a 30-year-old Syrian man.
“I didn’t like him. I only married him because people were talking,” she said from inside her family’s tent.
Aziza said she left the man after about a year because he physically abused her.
“The younger a girl gets married, the more at risk she is of domestic violence,” said Jihane Latrous, a UNICEF child protection specialist.
“It is an extremely worrying factor because they aren’t able to deal with such situations.”
Nearly 35 percent of women aged 20 to 24 in Western Bekaa surveyed in 2016 were married before reaching 18, according to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA).
Beyond setting a minimum age for marriage, education of girls is key to break the cycle of poverty, said Latrous.
“The less this young generation is educated, the less they are able, themselves, to bring up their children in a way that will empower their children,” she said.
As the oldest girl in her family, Aziza was adamant that her sisters learn from how she “suffered” and do not marry until they are 20 or older.
“Don’t get married and finish school,” is her message to fellow Syrian refugee girls.
As Aziza looked down at her five-month-old son, she imagined a better life for him.
“When he gets older, I want him to be educated and not be like me, not knowing how to read and write. I want him to know Arabic and English,” she said with a smile.