Syrian Boy, 5, Engaged to Girlfriend, 3

Khalid and Hala sit next to each other at their engagement ceremony in Homs, Syria.

Khalid and Hala sit next to each other at their engagement ceremony in Homs, Syria.

Two Syrian children may be the youngest couple ever to get engaged.

Khalid, 5, popped the question to Hala, who's just 3, "of his own free will," following a whirlwind holiday romance.

The families of both children are not only taking the betrothal seriously, they insist the school children are in love and are already planning a wedding for 10 years down the road -- when Khalid will be 15 and Hala 12.

The parents arranged the engagement ceremony in their home town of Homs, about 100 miles north of Damascus. They invited family friends and even bought rings which the prepubescent couple exchanged in adult fashion.

Their story has become the talk of the country.

Khalid's father, Juma, said his son fell in love with Hala just days after meeting her during a family trip to the port city of Latakia.

"He was so love-sick after parting from his young girlfriend that he refused to go back to his nursery unless little Hala came too," said Juma, who added that Khalid was his only child from a marriage which lasted more than 25 years.

"I vowed to have my child engaged at the age of five if he was a boy and to marry him to a women of his choice at the age of 15," he said. He has also agreed to bear the education expenses of both children until they graduate.

Khalid places a ring on Hala's finger at their engagement ceremony.

Juma says that as absence made his son's heart grow fonder in the separation following the vacation, his wife contacted Hala's family and was surprised to learn the little girl was, "developing similar symptoms of loneliness and the family would be happy to see them engaged."

Child marriage continues across the globe as many cultures remain bound by tradition, but there are very few cases when it comes to big cities in this Middle Eastern country. Syria is not among the United Nations list of 30 countries with the highest incidents of child marriage.

Perhaps the unusual nature of the betrothals has increased the disapproval and displeasure voiced in Syria's newspapers and online discussion forums.

"Instead of doing what most parents would do -- you know, laugh it off and chalk it up to childhood romance -- they decided to call Hala's mother and buy the pair rings! How...cute?" ridiculed a woman identifying herself as Bushra on the A'akes al-Seir (Against the Current) blog.

"How can these idiotic and clearly blind parents not see that they are merely encouraging the destruction of their children's childhood? It's beyond me why they're not just shrugging it off with a 'don't be silly' attitude," wrote another concerned woman in Damaspost. "These imbeciles have taken this too far already, and it should be stopped before something stupid happens."

However, according to Syria's English-language Forward Magazine, Syrian marriages are traditionally arranged at an early age for both males and females. When a boy reaches puberty, his female relatives begin searching for a suitable wife, who generally will be a few years younger than him.

If prospects are limited, a matchmaker is hired and together they go knocking on the doors of nearby homes and asking: "Do you have girls for marriage"?

Some tribal elders also see nothing wrong in committing young girls to marriage. They believe early marriage protects their daughters from premarital relationships, arguing that Islamic law in fact permits such matrimonies.

Several international human rights agreements protect children from underage marriage, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the Convention of Eradication of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990).

The UN recommends that countries adopt a minimum age for marriage of 18 for both sexes, saying child marriage reinforces low education, high fertility, and poverty.

"We know that Khalid or Hala might change their mind in the future, but what we do know at this stage is that they are very happy and talk to each other every day," Juma claims. "We laugh when Hala calls and says, 'can I speak with my ceianfe, please?'" he says, making a lighthearted quip about the 3-year-old girl's mispronunciation.

This story was filed by CBS News' George Baghdadi in Damascus.
  • George Baghdadi

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