Children or Brides? Exposing "Forced Puberty" in Syria

A new report published by TinyHand, an independent digital news platform for covering stories of children in conflict and crisis zones, reveals the horrifying practice of forced puberty across camps in Northern Syria, an area beset by decades of war and a devastating earthquake last February 2023 that displaced millions and killed thousands.

The media outlet interviewed a number of girls and women, as well as professionals like social workers, a lawyer, and a pharmacist, for this comprehensive investigation. They also used pseudonyms to hide the identity of the people they interviewed.

One of the girls they interviewed included Samar, a 16-year-old girl from northern Syria. Through a secret phone call a midwife arranged, she recalled how her father forced her to take pills in their tent in Salqin in northern Syria when she was 14 to speed up her puberty in hopes that she could get married to someone.

Once I had my period, I was forced into marriage,” Samar told TinyHands.

However, the plan to force her into puberty had disastrous results since her husband divorced her after only a year and a half of marriage after Samar became pregnant but lost the baby.

Cases like Samar, where young girls are forced into puberty through hormonal pills or being injected with hormones, were brought to the public in 2020 thanks to Inaam, a humanitarian worker since 2015 who wished to stay anonymous even though she was an influencer in northern Syria.

Inaam accidentally discovered cases of forced puberty among Syrian girls when she joined a technical working group for sexual reproductive health in 2020. There, she initially worked to uncover instances of sexual abuse and violence against women until she heard the story of a 12-year-old girl forced by her father to take pills to fasten her period from a midwife.

From there, Inaam found that parents in camps for refugees and the displaced in northern Syria did not only force their daughters to take hormonal pills or injections but also beat them on their backs, thinking this process would also help speed up their puberty.

The Health Directorates of Idlib and Aleppo banned the sale and use of hormonal injections and drugs without a prescription after the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) released a press release based on Inaam’s research, highlighting the rampant cases of forced puberty throughout northern Syria.

Unfortunately, the ban did not stop the practice from occurring, as TinyHand later discovered anyone could still purchase medicine or injections containing hormones (estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone) without a prescription. Ahmed, a pharmacist they interviewed, said that imported medicines are not subject to any price control and even said he never heard of the ban issued by the health directorates.

Forcing girls into puberty using hormonal pills or injections can have severe implications for their health. Dr. Kenan Ziyadoglu, a gynecologist and obstetrician interviewed by TinyHand, said that using such drugs can result in early menopause before 35. In worse cases, they can even cause ovarian or uterine cancer.

A recent report from Al-Monitor revealed that young boys also suffer sexual abuse. In northeast Syria, over a half dozen officials claim that the male children of former ISIS fighters in rehabilitation camps are being forced by their mothers to impregnate women to “grow the Islamic State.” Former commander Nujin Derik, who has overall responsibility for the IS camps, says that the women have orders to hide the newborn males in an effort to reestablish an army of boy fighters called “the Cubs of the Caliphate.”

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