Uganda: Refugee Law Project Working Paper No. 20 - " 'Giving out their daughters for their survival' : Refugee self-reliance, 'vulnerability', and the paradox of early marriage"

Originally published



The following report examines the widespread occurrence of early marriages in Uganda's refugee settlements and how this phenomenon relates to the 'vulnerability' and selfreliance paradigms which underpin official protection and assistance. In seeking to understand why so many refugees engage in early marriages-which are illegal under Ugandan and international law and widely recognised amongst refugees themselves as harmful-it argues that the practice must be viewed within the broader context of Uganda's settlements. In these settlements, restricted freedom of movement limits the majority of encamped refugees to subsistence farming, and affords them little or no opportunity to escape a life of poverty and physical insecurity.

Uganda's Self-Reliance Strategy (SRS) and its Development Assistance for Refugees (DAR) component were designed to enable refugees living in the country's agricultural settlements to provide for themselves rather than depend on external support, while fostering greater development in refugee-hosting areas. In practice, however, the strategy's narrow focus on subsistence agriculture and inadequate provision for freedom of movement for encamped refugees leaves them impoverished and dependent. Officials recognise that not all refugees can provide for themselves under this system, and accordingly, the 'vulnerable groups' paradigm is commonly used to identify and target additional assistance to refugees thought to be the most in need. Owing to financial or logistical constraints, however, many refugees who have been labelled 'vulnerable' by virtue of their membership of a particular group often do not receive any special assistance. Others who once received such assistance might find themselves removed from official lists. This denial of assistance despite having been labelled as vulnerable can lead to immense frustration, anger, and resentment. Moreover, by creating an expectation of entitlement, the 'vulnerable' label fosters dependency in contradiction to the SRS and actually discourages self-sufficiency. This is particularly true insofar as aid to vulnerable refugees often fails to encourage independence or support community-based mechanisms that are already working to fill gaps in official aid.

Despite the efforts of the Government of Uganda, UNHCR, and their partners, the failures of the SRS and DAR in an environment of declining donor funding-particularly to education and community services-lead a large percentage of refugees to pursue various necessary though flawed coping mechanisms to provide for themselves and their families. Early marriage is principal among these strategies, yet paradoxically, it also represents an infringement on the rights of those involved that generally exacerbates existing physical, social, and economic hardship. The 'vulnerable groups' approach might be expected to address early marriage, but in practice it often has the opposite effect. Insofar as it fails to address the widespread human rights violations present in the settlements, it effectively perpetuates the cycle of vulnerability and dependence in which many refugees view early marriage as their best-or only-means of survival. Therefore, the widespread nature of the phenomenon serves as an indicator of the failure of the 'vulnerable groups' paradigm and the Self-Reliance Strategy to adequately protect encamped refugees.

This report is based on field research conducted between February and November 2006 in four refugee settlements in Uganda-Kyaka II in Kyenjojo district, Kyangwali in Hoima district, and Rhino Camp and Madi Okollo in Arua district-and on preliminary consultations in Kampala in November and December 2005. The study was undertaken with funding from the Ford Foundation, with additional support from Comic Relief. The research teams consisted of Noah Gottschalk, Godwin Buwa, Bernadette Iyodu, Fred Lulinaki, Simon Ndaula, Tabitha Netuwa, and Eunice Owiny of the Refugee Law Project, and Joan Aliobe, Juliet Aliobe, Anne Amuron, and Pamela Mactolo. This report was written by Noah Gottschalk with valuable input from Chris Dolan, Lucy Hovil, and Moses Chrispus Okello.