Parents—how do you get through to them?
Like any teenager, 14-year-old Marah* has spent a lot of time grappling with that question. She’s sitting with a group of other girls inside a women and girls' center in Lebanon’s Bekka Valley, listening intently to a discussion about building trusting relationships with parents. She’s here because she wants to learn how to better communicate with her father about something very important to her: She wants to go back to school.
Marah is one of the more than 1.2 million Syrians who have arrived in Lebanon since war broke out in 2011. Life here is tough for refugees, who now make up a quarter of the country’s population.
Adults must deal with overwhelming financial stresses as they try to create a new life for their families in overcrowded apartments and makeshift camps in a foreign land. They have few social services to support them. Their adolescent daughters, likewise, must cope with homesickness and feelings of isolation, emotions that disturb teens who face far fewer challenges. Many of these girls are at risk of experiencing abuse.
Recognising the dangers, parents often decide to keep their young daughters at home, hoping to shield them from harassment, while others pull them from school to be married: a husband will provide protection and financial stability. Unfortunately, these parents overlook or are unaware that marriage actually increases their daughter’s risk of experiencing domestic violence, not to mention the health complications that come with early pregnancy.
Marah has joined a programme led by the International Rescue Committee that helps Syrian girls learn how to avoid violence and gain important life skills. The girls themselves suggest topics for discussion and help design creative activities such as art workshops and drama play. The IRC runs the 12-week course at five women and girls' centres across Lebanon. We also travel to the girls' homes if they cannot attend sessions at the centres.
IRC facilitators first explain the programme to girls’ parents in order to include them in the learning process. The girls then gather to address issues that concern them most, with special attention given to girls who are not in school, who are already married or divorced, or who are survivors of violence.
“Girls don’t want to talk to adults,” says Joane Cremesty, who manages the centre in Barelias, laughing as she explains what every parent knows. “We do icebreakers and games to find ways for them to talk to each other. Activities help girls share their experiences and secrets. They have a talk, and after a while, they talk with us.”
Each session begins with conversations about making friends, building confidence and solving problems at home and in the community. After the girls get to know each other better, IRC staff members lead them into discussions on tougher topics like reproductive health and violence against women and girls.
Marah says these sessions have made a huge difference in her life.
“I was able to convince my dad to let me register for school,” she says proudly after finishing the programme. “He was totally against allowing me to go to school because of safety issues.”
How was that possible? Explains Marah, “I chose the right time to talk to him, I prepared my arguments and I was very calm during the conversation. I told him that throughout the course, I learned how to protect myself from any harm that I might face, whether it’s on the street or at school.”
Marah is one of several teenagers who are using what they have learned in these sessions to educate other girls about the benefits of school and the hazards of early marriage.
“When a friend would tell me that she was getting married, I always wished to be in her place and I used to ask myself: Why not me?” Marah recalls. “But now that I am aware of the risks of early pregnancy, marriage is not a priority anymore.”
Marah is optimistic about her future and seems to relish her role as a mentor. “I give advice to my friends who are thinking about getting married at a young age,” she says. “I focus on the importance of education and I share with them my own experience.”
Her new mantra? “Opportunities will arise at the right moment for all girls.”
*Last names were omitted to protect the privacy of the girls.