Farida is at an awkward age for any girl. But as a Syrian refugee of 13, she faces a crossroads that will probably determine her fate for the rest of her life. She will soon feel pressure from her family to marry, thus bringing them a bride price. A forced marriage so young may seem preferable to forced labor, some might argue. For the moment though, this young girl from Raqqa is only feeling the heat from the baking sun on a farm in Akkar - a flashpoint town on the Syrian border where in 35 degree temperatures she and others work as what NGOs in Lebanon consider to be child slaves.
A recent report from the Freedom Fund has thrown the spotlight on the inevitable consequence of five years of fighting impossible poverty for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a country where they are expected to pay for their own keep, unlike those in Jordan or Turkey. With rising residency costs for the refugees themselves, a plummeting economy and no legal apparatus, children have become the latest victims of exploitation in a country that simply can't cope with more than a quarter of its population a refugee.
On a small farm on the outskirts of town, children as young as four years of age work under the sun studiously filling bags or following the tractor's blades as it ploughs the rich soil. Their tiny hands are useful for stitching the bags ready for market. No health and safety standards are in sight in a comical scene bereft of dignity and irony. The landowner dons a colonial helmet and wields a stick that has a metal tip, as does his "Sharwish" deputy. There's a lot of shouting, and many children look scared.
"The job is very difficult ... but our life conditions are miserable, so we need money," said Farida. A local NGO worker, Leyla Assi of Beyond Association, worries about her. "She has a real personality and is beautiful ... her eyes," Leyla whispered to me. Farida is not aware of her own beauty though, and that she, like many others, could easily fall prey to a forced marriage if her family's financial situation worsens.
"I feel that I am a victim, I must be studying instead of working," she explained. "I'm working here to survive to get money, as my mother can't work due to her bad back."
But forced, child married can sometimes be with an employer and be the thin end of the wedge of sexual exploitation - a repugnant subject that has divided a camp of respected NGOs and U.N. agencies, with the latter trying to claim that a recent study has blown up the numbers.
A recent report by the Freedom Fund spells out the dangers of child slavery and how it becomes a premise for forced prostitution and sexual abuse on a scale not seen before. Children often see their own mothers engaged in prostitution or may well be a victim themselves.
"Syrian refugee women are coerced into providing sexual favors in return for rent, food or employment," the study claims. "The perpetrator is commonly the woman's landlord who might broker a deal himself or be the recipient ... and such deals may involve the exploitation of children." The report paints a horrific picture of women working in the homes of Lebanese where it is commonplace for them to perform sexual acts "to keep the job;" according to a local municipality official, "She may have to get her 13 year old child involved."
Sexual abuse and child marriage
Leading human rights groups back up the claim of "survival sex" among many women working in Lebanese homes, but it goes further, following a recent police raid at a "super nightclub" called Chez Maurice.
"It is widely accepted that they represent the majority of women in prostitution in the country and that this proportion has risen since the Syrian conflict sent hundreds of thousands over the border," said Skye Wheeler of Human Rights Watch (HRW). "There is a huge problem for Syrian women, some of whom have been trafficked to Lebanon, in reporting abuse in Lebanon's underground sex industry," she added.
Inevitably, those same women are trapped and cannot expect any legal protection as the judicial noose tightens around their necks. "Instead of victims they are likely to be perceived as criminals, as prostitution is, in effect, illegal in Lebanon," she explained. "They may also face sexual abuse in police stations where they usually cannot access lawyers. They also could face problems because of their residency status."
According to HRW, after the police raid, up to 75 women were released who had been held in abusive conditions, "forced to work as prostitutes," were regularly beaten and had their identification documents and phones taken away.
And so child marriage is increasingly seen as an almost acceptable "coping mechanism" against forced prostitution that the Chez Maurice case highlighted, as well as rape from within their community.
Astonishingly though, while the NGO community's claims of sexual exploitation grow, the U.N. itself appears to be in denial of its very existence, which might explain the Freedom Fund's report that places blame on international donors giving "little thought towards tackling slavery and trafficking." Indeed, UNHCR officials admitted to Daily Sabah that they had not even initially read the incendiary report, which may in fact be the crux of how the problem spiraled in the first place, as U.N. agencies tread carefully not to annoy the Lebanese government. But their uber-diplomatic stance raises questions as to their role, given the claims of the gargantuan scale of child slavery in Lebanon. UNHCR officials questioned the methodology of the author. They also dismiss the child marriage numbers and won't even agree to the assertion that 2/3 of all prostitutes in Lebanon are now young Syrian women.
But then the U.N. in Lebanon is also reluctant to admit it has a funding crisis, aware that this may give present donors the jitters and funds may wain. It also does not want to compile statistics that might compromise its working relationship with the Lebanese government - whose moves to both increase residency fees and tighten the rules - have had a major impact on child labor and drawn the wrath of the HRW, Amnesty International and the Norwegian Refugee Council.
It really is just about the money. "Facilitating adults' access to livelihoods (with decent working conditions and wages) would reduce pressure on households to resort to child labor," a UNHCR spokesman explained. "We are advocating for the lifting of requirements on refugees when they renew their residency status, not to work."UNICEF officials also want Syrian adults to have jobs and are concerned about longer terms effects on young girls like Farida, who earns $4.80 a day in the fields. "Adding to the psychological trauma already affecting many children, the experiences associated with these worst forms of child labor can cause long-term developmental and psychological damage," explained Tanya Chapuisat, its country chief in Lebanon.
Both U.N. agencies though will find an ILO report on child slavery in Lebanon, about to be published, hard to ignore. For Farida, who dreams of being a doctor, it's only her back that is hurting at the moment, but she worries that her parents stay on good terms with the landowner as her fate lies in his hands. "It's like torture now ... Its early for me to marry, am still young, I have to study not to marry. Maybe my parents will force me to marry at this age because they need money."
*The Deutsche Welle correspondent in Beirut who also writes for a number of British newspapers as a Middle East correspondent.