(Reuters) From the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan to insurgency-hit areas of Chad, child marriage can end the dreams of girls who want to go to school, a Syrian education activist said.
“Fleeing war and seeing your country being destroyed is one of the hardest things that children can face,” said Muzoon Almellehan, a 19-year-old Syrian refugee, who has become known as “Syria’s Malala” for her work on education.
“But for girls, it is especially hard because war often takes away their education and puts them at risk of child marriage,” she added during a visit to refugee camps in Chad where she met children uprooted by the Boko Haram insurgency.
Around 25 million children are out of school in conflict zones, UNICEF, the U.N.’s children agency, said on Monday.
A seven-year insurgency by the jihadist Boko Haram group, whose name in the Hausa language means ‘Western Education is Forbidden’ has killed at least 20,000 people and forced more than 2 million from their homes in the Lake Chad region – Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad.
Girls are especially likely to drop out of school when their families are displaced as poverty hits, leaving parents with few options but to marry off their daughters early, Almellehan said.
In Chad, nearly three times as many girls as boys who should be going to primary school are missing out on education in conflict areas, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
Seven in 10 girls in the country get married before they turn 18.
Fleeing war-torn Syria with her family in 2013, Almellehan’s main concern was that she would be able to keep up her education, taking school books as her only belongings.
“When I fled the violence in Syria I was so scared, I was scared because I didn’t know if I could continue learning when I arrived at the camps, I thought my life was over,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
She went on to spend over a year in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp, which houses almost 80,000 Syrian refugees, where she was able to attend school regularly and tried to encourage other girls to do the same.
“There were many girls who were forced into marriage, it was so devastating,” Almellehan said. “I wanted other girls to feel the hope that I felt so I went from tent to tent trying to prevent the marriages and get more girls in schools.”
The Almellehan family was resettled in Britain in 2015, and now lives in the northern city of Newcastle.
DREAMS AND HOPES
Many of the girls she met during her week in Chad as an ambassador for UNICEF had faced similar hardships – but had the same hopes for the future.
She met a 16-year-old girl who was abducted by Boko Haram outside her school in Nigeria and was abused for three years before fleeing to neighbouring Chad.
“They’ve seen so much violence, they’ve been exploited and abused, and they’re hungry, tired and living in temporary places because they’ve been forced from their homes, but they still have the same dreams and hopes as most refugee children – they want to go to school,” Almellehan said.
“Education for girls, or any children, who have been uprooted by conflict can never be seen as optional – it is essential.”
But meeting children who were able to get an education for the first time – 90 percent of children arriving into Chad from Nigeria have never been to school, according to UNICEF – inspired her, Almellehan said.
“It motivates me to do more in my activism work and to work harder in my life,” she said.
“There are people who are suffering more than me.”