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Less talk, more action to address child marriage in emergencies

Across the globe, millions of lives are being torn apart by conflict, disasters and displacement. When a crisis hits, girls are often the first to suffer. To mark World Humanitarian Day, we explore the links between humanitarian crisis and child marriage, including what needs to be done to protect girls in crisis situations.

Every year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18. That is nearly one girl every two seconds – married off too soon, and deprived of their fundamental rights to health, education and safety.

But as the world becomes more unstable, child marriage could become an even bigger problem. A growing body of evidence shows that adolescent girls are more vulnerable to child marriage in humanitarian emergencies. In fact, nine out of the 10 countries with the highest child marriage rates are fragile or extremely fragile states.

A young woman from the Rohingya community in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo credit: Girls Not Brides / Antolin Avezuela.

Understanding the links between child marriage and crises

Child marriage increases during emergencies for several reasons. Crises exacerbate factors that already drive child marriage in times of stability — poverty, insecurity, lack of education.

Poor parents who have lost their livelihoods, their lands and their homes may see child marriage as a necessity to reduce the economic burden on the family and, hopefully, secure a better home for their daughter.

In Bangladesh, for instance, extreme poverty caused by river erosion and floods, often pushes families to adopt child marriage as a survival strategy.

In northern Cameroon and Nigeria, extremely poor families living in refugee or internally displaced camps are reported to be more willing to marry their daughters due to a lack of alternatives and the breakdown of social networks.

In refugee camps, parents fears for the safety of their daughters. They may see child marriage as a way to safeguard the family honour. This is what is believed to be driving the child marriage surge in Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, with rates nearly tripling from 2011 to 2014. Parents may also marry their daughters in order to secure food rations: A recent report by The Guardian found that the allocation of food rations by household meant that refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar were marrying off children as young as 12 to create new family circles.

A woman holds her baby in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, the world’s largest refugee settlement. Photo credit: Girls Not Brides / Antolin Avezuela

A barrier to recovery

Despite parents’ beliefs, child marriage puts adolescent girls at greater risk of domestic violence.

Once married, it can be difficult for girls to resume their education. With limited economic opportunities, they become trapped in a cycle of poverty. Their health and their children’s suffer too.

Simply put, child marriage not only threatens the future of girls, but also that of their families and communities.

Girls are some of the most vulnerable in conflict settings, yet they are often left behind in crisis responses. This young woman is one of more than 900,000 refugees living in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo credit: Girls Not Brides / Antolin Avezuela.

Include adolescent girls in crisis response

The humanitarian and development sectors have started to target adolescent girls in their responses, but not enough is being done. Here is what more could be done:

  1. Recognise child marriage as a critical issue at all times, including conflicts, disasters and displacements.
  2. Prevent child marriage and support adolescent girls in any humanitarian response. Meet families’ basic needs so they don’t see child marriage as a coping strategy. Provide education for girls. Make safety and security a priority in refugee or internally displaced camps.
  3. Test programmes, and research the drivers of child marriage. With better data, we can tailor interventions and understand what works and what doesn’t.

Currently, a number of families living in fragile contexts see marrying their daughters as a solution to their problems. If we want to build their resilience, we must give them viable alternatives to child marriage.