23/07/2014 07:07 BST | Updated 21/09/2014 06:59 BST

What Happens When You Mix Desperate Parents, a War Zone and Sexual Violence?

The fighting in Syria has killed thousands of children. Estimates vary, because no-one can verify the data. At least 11,000. Almost certainly more.

And still, the daily toll of the dead keeps rising. Every day more children become injured, disabled or traumatised. Hunger is on the rise.

With no end to the conflict in sight, the country writhes in a state of armed


Desperate days

Against such a bleak backdrop, it's perhaps understandable that parents have resorted to desperate measures to keep their children alive and free from harm. Feeding them grass or leaves to keep their bellies full. Keeping them underground for weeks at a time. Sending them across borders alone in search of safety. Marrying off their young girls, so they would have a protector and enough to eat.

It's a desperate decision for any mother to make. Um Ali* cried when she told me what she had done, marrying off her young daughter in order to protect her from sexual violence.

"She loved school. She was top of her class and wanted to become an architect.

"But we were too worried for her. She is innocent and very pretty. I know that men are hurting women, old women, single women - everyone.

"We couldn't protect her, so we had to arrange for her to marry. We needed her to have a protector. We couldn't let her go outside at all.

"And if someone comes inside your house, you can't defend yourself. If they came in, what would her father do? Sit aside and watch?"

Deadly risks

Education is often an early casualty of child marriage. Married girls generally leave school once they are married, to care for their husbands and their homes, and very rarely return.

Then there's the physical harm to girls. In some cases, it's fatal. A child bride is likely to become sexually active at a young age, while her body is still developing, and she may not have much understanding of reproduction and sexual health. Child brides often find it difficult to discuss family planning methods or sexual practices openly with their husbands. And they often face pressure from family members to become pregnant quickly.

For girls, becoming pregnant and giving birth increase the health risks for both the mother and the child. Rates of stillbirths and newborn deaths are substantially higher for girls than for adult women. Girls under 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than a grown woman.

Another future is possible

It's a grim picture, but it's not set in stone. By bringing girls together to learn basic skills like numeracy and literacy, how to communicate and negotiate, how to stay healthy during their reproductive years, how to work together to solve problems, and how to earn and manage money, girls can become more knowledgeable and self-confident in refusing unwanted marriage.

Enhance a girl's access to high-quality education, and she can become a formidable power for change. It's a wonderful thing to witness.

Providing a girl or her family with an incentive, such as a loan or an opportunity to learn an income-generating skill, can help struggling families immediately. Daughters who learn skills that enable them to earn an income in the future can be seen as adding more value to the family.

Changing minds

***The good news is that things are changing. In the heart of communities and families across Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and Europe, more and more people are saying no to these practices. The Girl Summit, hosted today, is an opportunity for governments around the world that are working to end these practises to come together and secure new cross sector commitments to ensure the momentum is kept up, and we continue on a trajectory to end child marriage and Female genital mutilation.

Families and community elders are traditionally responsible for deciding when and who a girl marries. Educating them on how child marriage impacts a girl's health and future often sparks powerful change.

With new knowledge, adults' attitudes and behaviours about child marriage can shift. They become more likely to challenge, rather than embrace, traditional expectations of girls.

Zada*, a Syria mother, can attest to this... "Here at the activity centre [in Za'atari refugee camp] they carried out awareness-raising sessions on the dangers of early marriage. I have seen the impact of early marriage.... I will not let my daughter get married to the wrong person, even if we end up staying in this camp for 20 years."

What we're doing

Save the Children is helping children in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt to cope with the worst effects of the war. In Jordan, we run community awareness sessions on child marriage with children, adolescents and parents with a focus on prevention of child marriage.

Across the region our child protection teams respond to issues related to child marriage and forced marriage, referring cases of gender-based violence to specialised agencies so that survivors get specialist support. In Jordan, we have joined forces with other agencies to launch Amani, a campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of marriage.

Read our report Too Young to Wed

* Names changed to protect identities.