Why focus on child marriage this Humanitarian Day?
We are all facing the consequences of multiple, interconnecting global crises: extreme weather, political turmoil, violent conflict, rising costs and the lasting effects of COVID-19. But it is girls, in all their diversity, who are most severely impacted. When families are put under pressure and support networks break down, it is girls – particularly those who are displaced or refugees – who are most likely to leave school, face hunger, and experience gender-based and sexual violence, including child marriage.
In addition to the generalised distress, insecurity and breakdown of support and services associated with conflict and crisis, married and parenting girls also take on (sometimes overwhelming) responsibilities at home, experience isolation and intimate partner violence, and face the greatest barriers to accessing services, including around education, sexual and reproductive health and rights, gender-based violence and child protection, and separation and divorce.
We know child marriage and sexual and gender-based violence can be prevented. Now we need to learn from the existing evidence and programmes, and adapt them to crisis- and conflict-affected settings. This Humanitarian Day, we shine a light on the girls who have been most marginalised, and offer eight ways to support them before, during and after crisis and displacement.
- Child marriage prevalence in states experiencing fragility is almost double the global average.[i]
- 9 of the 10 countries with the highest child marriage prevalence are experiencing fragility.[ii]
- For every tenfold increase in conflict-related fatalities, child marriage increases 10%.[iii]
- For every 10% change in rainfall due to climate change, child marriage increases 1%.[iv]
- Because of COVID-19 alone, 10 million more girls are expected to marry by 2030.[v]
8 ways to support the most marginalised girls
- Adapt to context with girl-centred responses that address the needs of married, displaced and refugee girls. This means learning from existing evidence, programmes and girl-centred and participatory research to (co-)design interventions that respond to adolescent girls’ needs and priorities, as defined by them. This includes considering how the drivers and consequences of child marriage change before, during and after displacement, and girls’ role in the decision-making process. Practices like female genital mutilation/cutting, bride price, dowry, abduction, violence in the home and intimate partner violence should also be considered.
- Prioritise girls’ education, supporting enrolment, retention and attainment through targeted access for the most marginalised girls. Girls and their caregivers prioritise education – and particularly vocational training – as central to preventing child marriage and ensuring their wellbeing, but often face financial, legal and other structural barriers to access. Solutions include improving civil registration systems for displaced and refugee girls, and exploring the potential of cash support, school feeding programmes, non-formal programming, skills training, online modules, group sessions and radio edutainment. Evening classes may increase access for married girls, but only if they can get there and back safely. Safe spaces can provide an entry point to introduce comprehensive sexuality education and dialogue around child marriage.
- Provide flexible, youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) services. This means working with ministries and health and welfare sectors, and engaging girls, families, communities and health care providers to challenge stigma and remove barriers to access for adolescent girls. Working with trusted community health care workers and traditional birth attendants can be effective, especially where facility-based care is not available. Other successful approaches include offering mobile SRHR clinics or camps with free transport, adolescent-friendly service corners and out-of-hours service targeting out-of-school girls and girls involved in sex work.
- Check for mental health and wellbeing, and fund tailored support for girls – with a focus on married and displaced girls. Married and displaced girls often experience emotional distress, particularly if they are isolated from friends and support networks, are not in school and are faced with the challenges of marriage and parenting at a young age. Interventions need to plan and budget to open and maintain their access to mental health services and support, including through psychosocial support and peer counselling. Peer networks and safe spaces also offer opportunities for girls to spend time with friends and to access caring adults.
- Engage communities – especially boys and men – to build support for girls’ participation and wellbeing. This means building meaningful partnerships with community-based and women’s rights organisations, who know the context best. Consider that community-based actors are also constrained by that context (e.g. poverty, insecurity and gender norms) and may require specialised training. When engaging community members, it can be effective to address practical considerations – including financial barriers to participation – alongside rights-based approaches. In engaging boys, work on communication and negotiation skills is a powerful entry point; with men, focusing on the negative implications of marrying a girl under age 18 is also effective. Gender-transformative work may include bringing a gender lens to the curriculum, and twinning programming with community sensitisation around non-violent masculinities, gender-based and intimate partner violence prevention and reporting, and justice and survivor services.
- Ensure interventions are multisectoral and multi-dimensional, offering holistic support for girls’ rights, agency and leadership. Adolescent girls can drive change when they have a support system around them, and humanitarian actors should better coordinate with national and longer-term actors to ensure this is built and maintained through acute, ongoing and cyclical crises. This means integrating work on education, SRHR, mental health, (non-traditional) livelihoods and economic empowerment, food security, child protection and gender-based violence, and laws and policies to ensure girls can make and act on their own decisions.
- Include child marriage risk and response awareness across all humanitarian assessments and strategies, including core Inter-Agency Standing Committee and cluster guidance documents. Consider how to embed these into existing tools to build understanding and accountability across humanitarian clusters, to support “do no harm” commitments and mitigate emerging drivers of child marriage – like food insecurity. Invest in humanitarian programming with a specific focus on preventing and responding to child marriage and broader targets around gender-transformative programming.
- Pilot and evaluate new approaches to child marriage programming, allowing for the testing of different approaches and with room for a degree of failure. Collaborate with communities, donors and researchers to support the design, monitoring and evaluation (including after programme closure) of girl-centred child marriage interventions. This could include a focus on learning from smaller-scale pilots in areas where there is promising but nascent evidence of impact; on adaptations of promising programmes and frameworks in different contexts; on efforts to scale up promising interventions; and of larger-scale or state-run interventions.
Useful tools for programming and research
- A practitioner’s guide to the ethical conduct of research on child marriage in humanitarian settings – a framework for practitioners to make decisions around whether and how to conduct research on child marriage in humanitarian settings. It focuses on the ethical conduct of research among adolescents and young people (age 10-24 years) living in challenging, low-resource and insecure environments who are at risk of – or have experienced – child marriage. The approaches and real-life examples support the examination of local contexts and informed and ethical decision-making in the research process.
- SenseMaker – a storytelling tool that allows the narrator to analyse their own story in real time to give it deeper meaning.
- Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (PHQ-9), for example these from Patient UK, Washington University and Stanford University.
- P4 suicide screening tool, for example these from GeroCentral and Accountable Health Partners.
Platforms for collaboration and learning
- Global Network on Mental Health and Child Marriage
- Girls Not Brides online learning series, with a session on child marriage in conflict- and crisis-affected settings.
Find out more
CRANK research meeting and spotlight on child marriage in conflict- and crisis-affected settings: Learning from the latest evidence on how to address the unique aspects of implementing and evaluating interventions with refugees.
CRANK evidence review of child marriage interventions and research from 2020 to 2022: Includes emerging evidence and recommendations for child marriage research, programming, policy and funding in conflict- and crisis-affected settings.
Brief exploring the drivers and consequences of conflict-related sexual violence, with evidence and recommendations from around the world.
In the time it has taken to read this article 84 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 2 seconds
- [i] Rubenstein, B., Lindsay, S., 2017, “The impact of humanitarian emergencies on the prevalence of violence against children: an evidence-based ecological framework”, Psychology, Health & Medicine, 22.
- [ii] Hunersen, K., Robinson, W., Krishnapalan, N. et al., 2020, Child marriage in humanitarian settings in the Arab States Region: Study results from Djibouti, Egypt, Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Yemen, UNFPA, UNICEF, Women’s Refugee Commission, Johns Hopkins University
- [iii] UNICEF, 2023, Is an end to child marriage within reach?
- [iv] UNICEF, 2023, Is an end to child marriage within reach?
- [v] UNICEF, 2021, COVID-19: A threat to progress against child marriage
CRANK Research Spotlight: Addressing child marriage and supporting married girls in conflict- and crisis-affected settings
Research Spotlight covering the latest research and evidence related to child marriage programming in conflict- and crisis-affected settings, including key takeaways, evidence gaps and ideas for further research and programming.
CRANK research meeting: Child marriage in conflict- and crisis-affected settings – Learning from the latest evidence
In this second quarterly research meeting of 2023, we will discuss recent evidence and learnings on how to address the unique aspects of implementing and evaluating interventions with refugees in conflict- and crisis-affected settings.
Evidence review: Child marriage interventions and research from 2020 to 2022
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Preventing conflict-related sexual violence is possible and requires urgent action
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Research Spotlight: 'Child marriage in humanitarian settings' and 'challenging gender norms to end child marriage'
Research Spotlight covering evidence on girl-led and girl-centred research in humanitarian settings, and on challenging gender norms to end child marriage.
CRANK research meeting: Child marriage in humanitarian settings
This CRANK global research meeting was open to all. In it, we shared findings from girl-centred, girl-led research on child marriage in humanitarian settings. There was also be space for…
Child marriage and humanitarian contexts
An overview of the key facts, drivers and consequences of child marriage in humanitarian contexts, and recommendations on how to prioritise girls and end the practice in times of crisis.
Child marriage in humanitarian contexts
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