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Child Marriage in Humanitarian Crisis: Girls and Parents Speak Out on Risk and Protective Factors, Decision-Making, and Solutions [EN/AR]

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INTRODUCTION

CHILD MARRIAGE, defined as a formal or informal union before the age of 18, is a well-recognized global phenomenon.1,2 Only in recent years, however, have we begun to understand the unique challenges and ramifications of child marriage during humanitarian crises and displacement, such as armed conflict or natural disaster. New research in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and Bangladesh has confirmed that child marriage is prevalent among girls displaced by conflict in these settings.3 Presently, of the 20 countries with the highest child marriage prevalence rates, the top 10 are considered fragile or extremely fragile states, and 12 are struggling with severe humanitarian crises.4 While child marriage has been known to decrease during some conflicts,5 in the majority of reported cases, it has increased due to a number of complex and compounding risk factors. In South Sudan, for example, recent research found that 71% of girls in the conflictaffected region of Nyal were married before age 18, up from the national prevalence of 45% prior to the conflict.6 Likewise in Lebanon, a 2016 study found that the percentage of Syrian refugee girls under age 18 who were married (23%) was nearly 3 times higher than it had been in pre-conflict Syria (8.5%).7 Girls who are married young may face a number of serious consequences that impact nearly every aspect of their lives. These consequences range from poor educational outcomes to serious physical and sexual violence and poor mental and physical health outcomes—particularly difficulties or even death in childbirth. At a fundamental level, child marriage deprives girls of their full rights as children.

In spite of the severity and extent of this issue, research to better understand child marriage in humanitarian settings has only recently begun to gain traction and the attention it critically needs. Currently, the majority of available data focuses on drivers or risk factors. Among the drivers most commonly identified are harmful social norms, including gender norms and inequality, compounded with poverty and economic insecurity, altered family structures, safety and security concerns, the desire to protect girls’ sexuality or honor, limited educational or economic alternatives for girls, the need for social or emotional support, and breakdown of the rule of law.8 The decision-making processes of girls and their families are rarely explored, but where they are, studies tend to agree that parents or male family members are the primary decision-makers and that girls themselves have little to no voice or agency in the process.9 Where studied, priority needs for preventing child marriage were improved livelihood, economic, and educational opportunities, as well as better access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) information and services.10 Married girls requested support to help them adjust and adapt to married life, as well as better connect with peers and access livelihood and education programs.11 Community ideas for strategies and solutions, addressed in only a few studies, included the need for improved safety and security overall, better educational and economic opportunities for girls, and greater awareness-raising on child marriage and the importance of education for girls, parents, and community members.12

Despite recent progress, significant gaps persist in the existing literature for practitioners seeking to develop evidence-based programming to address and respond to child marriage. While there is a growing body of research on the causes of child marriage in humanitarian contexts, the existing studies tend to focus on high-level drivers, failing to capture more actionable risk factors and differentiate decision-making factors that may be impacted by humanitarian response programming.13 Only a few studies probe the support and service needs of adolescent girls and their families related to preventing child marriage, 14 and even fewer consider the support needs of already married girls.15 Notably, there is also a significant gap in the research on community perspectives on prevention and response strategies regarding child marriage, with only a couple rigorous studies including this question as an explicit research objective, neither of which included the perspectives of girls under 18 years of age.16 Finally, there is currently no published research examining what protective factors contribute to delaying marriage for adolescent girls in humanitarian contexts. These gaps are particularly significant given that there are also no rigorous evaluations of interventions designed to address child marriage in humanitarian settings. There remains an urgent need for empirical evidence to inform the development of effective programming to prevent and respond to this challenge.