I recently watched footage of displaced Syrians returning to their homes. Men fought back tears as women let tears flow. Young boys and girls clustered around their mothers, absorbing the emotions of the moment. Adolescent boys stood beside their fathers, looking for social cues to mimic the adults.
But there were no adolescent girls.
I studied the video intently, enlarging the screen and hitting pause. No matter how long I stared, how many other videos I viewed or how far I stretched my imagination (well, maybe that young woman is really a girl…or maybe that little girl is really a very young adolescent), I was not able to identify one single adolescent girl.
In conflicts, adolescent girls disappear from public spaces. When Syria spiralled into violence – seven years ago today – families began restricting the mobility of their daughters. As rape and abduction emerged as weapons of war, girls stopped walking to the market. Some stopped going to school and others had to stop going because their schools were destroyed.
As parents lost livelihoods and struggled to feed their families, some began to see marriage as a way to reduce costs in their household so that that they would not watch all of their children slowly starve, and so girls as young as 10 were married off to adult men. Short contract marriages, informal temporary marriages in which girls are passed from temporary husband to temporary husband, emerged as a way to rationalize trafficking. In most cases fathers are the ones who sell their daughters to man after man.
Whether in the home of their parents or husbands, girls across Syria are besieged. Girls who escape as refugees tend to be slightly better off because they are more likely to have access to humanitarian services, but new vulnerabilities emerge. A taxi driver in Jordan told my colleague that he wanted to marry a Syrian girl because “they are desperate and easy to train”. He didn’t say if he would seek to arrange the marriage or abduct. I’m not sure which would be more traumatic for me: being given away to a foreign man by my own father or being kidnapped by a stranger.
In 2016 I spent months working on child marriage prevention and response in the Syria crisis. Since that same year, I’ve been working on other projects that touch the myriad of issues facing Syrian girls as well as girls throughout the region.
I am so tired of this. I don’t like living in Jordan. I want to go home.
Instead of becoming desensitized by the conflict, I absorb it. I feel the plight of these girls in my bones. The girls who can’t leave their homes without being harassed and groped by men in plain daylight. Girls who are married to adult men. Girls who are trafficked by a phoney marriage.
I persist because these girls persist, perhaps like no other.
Anne Frank, a besieged girl from yet another war, wrote that “a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.” The world may not know it, but adolescent girls are defining this crisis through their invisibility. We don’t notice their absence because it screams at a frequency beyond our ability to hear. It is more powerful than our ability to comprehend. One day we will understand just how epic this failure of humanity truly is.
And yet there is the defiance – a little spark inside of every girl that exists despite it all. I know what this defiance looks like, I know what it feels like and I know what it sounds like. It is inside of every Syrian girl I have ever seen, and I know it is inside of every girl I haven’t seen too.
It is a light, flickering and flashing inside besieged girls living homes made of rubble or tents, that defies the darkness of seven years of conflict. This flicker and flash is how I know that this war will end. It is how I know that girls will prevail. And it is how I know that, one day, these invisible girls will reemerge from their homes and their marriages and shine brighter than the sun.
To help break the invisibility of Syrian girls, share this posts and other information on adolescent girls so that the world can see them again.