Issue 75 - Article 12

Child marriage: a major obstacle to building adolescent girls’ resilience

May 31, 2019
Julie Rialet
Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage
13 min read

After fleeing her home in Syria and moving around different locations in Lebanon, Haya’s parents forced her to marry when she was 15 years old. The same happened to 14-year-old Salma in Pakistan, after her family lost their home due to floods. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Olive was kidnapped by a member of an armed group on her way home from the market. Her kidnapper forced her to marry him. The world is full of stories like these, with 12 million girls married every year before they turn 18. Nine of the 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriage are considered fragile or extremely fragile. All over the world, child marriage has long-term consequences for girls and their families. Health issues linked to early and frequent pregnancies, high risks of domestic violence, inter- generational cycles of poverty and limited opportunities to build their agency are some of the consequences faced by child brides. Girls living in humanitarian settings often face a greater range of vulnerabilities, which requires adapting approaches to prevent and respond to child marriage in these contexts.

A practice rooted in stable contexts, and worsened in humanitarian settings

A few years ago, the issue of child marriage in humanitarian settings was highlighted by a UNICEF study warning that the proportion of Syrian refugee girls married before 18 in Jordan had almost tripled, from 12% in 2011 to about 32% in 2014. Similar trends have been observed in Lebanon, where 41% of young displaced Syrian women were married as children, and among conflict-affected and internally displaced populations in Yemen, Chad, Iraq, South Sudan, Northern Cameroon, Nigeria and elsewhere. Local and international humanitarian actors have reported cases of child marriage following earthquakes, floods and droughts in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nepal and Mozambique. Girls Not Brides, Child Marriage in Humanitarian Settings, 2018 ( crises/). Most locations affected by humanitarian crises lack recent data to measure the scale of the issue.

In both stable and crisis contexts, child marriage is rooted in gender inequality and sustained by cultural and social norms, poverty and lack of opportunities. Girls are married off primarily because they tend to be considered less valuable than boys, and are seen as needing protection – either for their own safety or to prevent sexual relationships and pregnancy outside of marriage, which can be perceived as a threat to girls’ and their family’s reputation. For many families facing poverty, violence and lack of opportunity, marrying their daughters may seem like the only option, reducing mouths to feed, providing extra income in the form of a bride price or protecting girls from sexual violence. Ibid. We still need to better understand both the risks and the protective factors across geographical and cultural contexts, and across different types and stages of humanitarian crises. However, child marriage is often practised in communities before a crisis, so evidence from development contexts could help in finding solutions in humanitarian settings.

A cross-cutting issue requires a comprehensive and collaborative approach

To prevent child marriage and support girls who are already married, we need a combination of measures and action across areas traditionally associated with child protection, gender-based violence, education and health and livelihoods, among others. We need locally led long-term initiatives that are supported nationally and internationally, and that help adolescent girls to build the skills and confidence they need to exercise their rights and make decisions on issues that affect them.

These initiatives should provide health, education and vocational services for youth and young women, and remove any practical, social and financial barriers to accessing them. They should engage with families and community members that have a major influence on the life of girls, raising awareness of the harmful consequences of child marriage, exploring values, traditions and gender norms that sustain the practice and helping them envision alternative roles for girls. A comprehensive approach to ending child marriage should also include a strong legal and policy framework to protect girls’ and women’s rights, and increase educational, economic and social opportunities to accelerate and sustain change.

Girls taking part in a workshop on child marriage run by Girls Not Brides member SOFERES pose for photos with posters they have made. © SOFERES.

Addressing child marriage in humanitarian settings: action by local, national and international organisations

Work to end child marriage in a humanitarian setting can come up against a specific set of challenges. Conflict can create new causes of child marriage, for example when girls are abducted and forced to marry armed combatants. The capacity of a national government to provide basic services and implement laws and policies might be considerably limited, and the short funding cycles typical in humanitarian settings are an obstacle to the sustained action needed to address the root causes of child marriage. Security concerns are an obvious challenge for practitioners delivering programmes on the ground, and a combination of gender norms, increased insecurity and mistrust of communities and service providers can mean that adolescent girls, especially those who are already married, are often even harder to reach. Women’s Refugee Commission, A Girl No More: The Changing Norms of Child Marriage in Conflict, 2016 ( resources/1311-girl-no-more).

Local organisations are finding ways to implement initiatives, most of the time with very limited resources. In DRC and Malawi, local organisations are raising awareness of the issue of child marriage and providing vocational training for girls. Solidarity of Refugee Women for the Social Welfare (SOFERES), a grassroots organisation created by women refugees, works to increase access to reproductive health information and services, and provides vocational training in the Dzaleka camp in Malawi, where many girls are forced to marry at 13 or 14 years of age. Refugees are not allowed to work in Malawi, but they can start businesses inside the camp. Volunteers from SOFERES teach hairdressing and tailoring skills to out- of-school girls, so that they can earn an independent living, and weekend workshops cover child marriage, HIV/AIDS and gender-based violence (GBV): ‘We teach girls about their rights and work with them and their families to keep them in school’, they explained.

In DRC, the Association pour le Développement des Initiatives Paysannes (ASSODIP) worked with a local committee for rights and development to help Olive escape her forced marriage and enrol in a sewing training programme. Olive told the organisation that her new skills meant she could reintegrate into her community, and was able to earn money to provide for her children and pay for their education. ASSODIP also works at the community level to ensure that girls can safely express their newly acquired skills. ‘We try to adopt a holistic approach because girls who were abducted not only have to deal with the trauma of being captive, but also face a lot of stigma when they come back to their community’, explained the head of the organisation. ‘Communities are the best placed to understand the issues that they face. So we help set up community-based committees including influential women, community leaders etc., and work with them to raise awareness about child marriage and other forms of abuse, and to address issues of stigma so that girls can come back to a safer environment.’

Building on community-based capacities and networks is a common approach across a number of regions. National organisations such as Cooperation for Peace and Development in Afghanistan and Naba’a in Lebanon work with community- based groups to encourage secondary education for girls, and train parents to raise awareness among their peers of child marriage and related issues. They support the community with participatory assessments to plan for interventions themselves, or promote inter-gender and inter-generational dialogue and debate to address the root causes of child marriage. These discussions are particularly important as humanitarian crises can offer an opportunity to change the way things are normally done: a crisis disrupts everyday life, including spaces, movements, roles and potentially power dynamics, and so can create conditions to challenge the status quo. ODI and CARE, Disaster and Violence against Women and Girls: Can Disasters Shake Social Norms and Power Relations?, 2016 ( publications/10644-disasters-and-violence-against-women-and-girls-can- disasters-shake-social-norms-and-power-relations).

Community-based and national organisations use a range of strategies to provide comprehensive prevention and response to child marriage. For example, Lebanese Democratic Women’s Gathering (RDFL) works at the community level to raise awareness of child marriage. However, the message can easily be weakened if national laws continue to support the practice, so RDFL also runs national campaigns to advocate for a minimum legal age of marriage at 18 and promote women’s rights in Lebanon. In Afghanistan, Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan (HAWCA) and Women for Afghan Women offer safe accommodation, legal aid and medical and psychological support in mobile clinics in IDP camps or at stationary centres, as well as educational opportunities for married and out-of-school girls. Ibid. See also ICRW and Girls Not Brides, Solutions to Ending Child Marriage, 2016. Department for International Development, briefing paper, Violence against Women and Girls in Humanitarian Emergencies, CHASE Briefing Paper, October 2013 ( government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/271932/VAWG- humanitarian-emergencies.pdf).

International organisations also have an important role to play in advancing efforts to tackle child marriage in humanitarian settings. The International Rescue Committee (IRC), the Population Council and the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) have used innovative approaches to identify and reach out to girls at risk in humanitarian settings. In Lebanon, IRC used the results of a study on child marriage in the Bekaa region to design a package of life-skills sessions tailored to the specific needs of married girls and consider external factors such as allowing young mothers to fully engage in activities by providing volunteer-led childcare. Many of these girls reported feeling stronger and more self-confident, and able to make important decisions in their life.

Investing in local capacities and building effective partnerships across sectors to reach scale

In the past few decades, the international humanitarian com- munity has made great progress towards better consideration of the specific vulnerabilities of women and girls. Yet child marriage is still not adequately addressed in humanitarian response. Local civil society and a number of international organisations use targeted approaches to support girls at risk of child marriage and married girls, but these efforts remain sparse and are mostly not evaluated. Save the Children and Human Rights Centre, Toward an End to Child Marriage: Lessons from Research and Practice in Development and Humanitarian Sectors, 2018 (https://resourcecentre.savethechildnet/library/toward-end-child- marriage-lessons-research-and-practice-development-and-humanitarian- sectors).

Child marriage is recognised as an important issue by child protection and GBV professionals. Further collaboration between these two sectors could help prevent adolescent girls, especially married girls, getting lost among services dedicated to children and women that may not meet their needs, though practitioners can lack the space for peer-to- peer learning on child marriage through sub-cluster coordination platforms. Many other humanitarian sectors have a role to play in addressing child marriage. Girls with secondary or higher education are three times less likely to marry by 18 as those with no education, United Nations Population Fund, Marrying Too Young: End Child Marriage, 2012 ( so education initiatives are an important part of a prevention and response strategy. In humanitarian settings, families have repeatedly turned to child marriage to cope with extreme poverty, or in an attempt to protect girls from violence, so food security and livelihood initiatives can ensure that families’ basic needs are met and they have the resources to care for their daughters. Camp management can improve girls’ safety by addressing the risks of violence they can face in detention centres and at water points and latrines, and on their way to health and other service locations. Few protection, education, health and food security initiatives have the prevention of, and response to, child marriage as an objective, but integrating indicators that track the impact of these interventions on child marriage can be a simple way of assessing what is helping to address child marriage in humanitarian contexts. Girls Not Brides and ICRAW, Sector Briefs, 2016 ( resource-centre/child-marriage-brief-role-of-sectors/).

We know much more about the drivers of child marriage across the world than we did a decade ago, and sharing learning across development and humanitarian sectors is key to making progress. Development can help prevent families turning to child marriage when a crisis strikes; humanitarian actors can use this learning and adapt strategies based on their expertise and knowledge of constraints specific to humani- tarian contexts. They can pilot and evaluate these strategies to build evidence of what works in addressing child marriage in humanitarian contexts. Organisations including the Inter- national Rescue Committee, CARE International, Plan Inter- national, Save the Children, UNICEF, UNFPA and the Women’s Refugee Commission, to name just a few, are moving in that direction. However, while change is supported by national and international efforts, it ultimately needs to happen locally. Greater and longer-term support to local actor is key to promoting reconstruction and ensuring that change is sustainable, as testimonies from groups including the Association de Lutte contre les Violences faites aux Femmes (ALVF) in northern Cameroon, Aide Rapide aux victimes des Catastrophes (ARVC) in South Kivu and Action for Women and Children Concern (AWCC) in Somalia attest. Of course, local civil society organisations and international actors cannot do all the work, and in many humanitarian contexts the national government has a major role to play in ensuring that efforts are sustainable and can happen at scale.


In the past decade, although an estimated 25 million child marriages were prevented, UNICEF, Child Marriage: Latest Trends and Future Prospects, 2018 ( prospects/). rates continue to increase across many humanitarian contexts. As long as girls are married, exposed to violence within their home, trapped in poverty and denied their rights to health and education, other efforts to meet their needs and help them become strong women within their communities will be held back. Learning from the child marriage movement offers a strong evidence base for humanitarian actors to build upon, and adapt solutions to emergencies and protracted crisis contexts. Greater collaboration across humanitarian clusters and sectors will provide the comprehensive approach needed to prevent and respond to child marriage, bridge the gap between humanitarian and development initiatives and contribute to the resilience of at-risk adolescent girls.

Key resources

Girls Not Brides, A Theory of Change on Child Marriage, 2014 (

ICRW and Girls Not Brides, Solutions to Ending Child Marriage: What the Evidence Shows, 2011 ( Solutions-to-End-Child-Marriage.pdf

Save the Children, Toward an End to Child Marriage: Lessons from Research and Practice in Development and Humanitarian Sectors (https://resourcecentre. marriage_report_june2018.pdf)

Population Council, The Global State of Evidence on Interventions to Prevent Child Marriage, 2018 ( GIRLCenterResearchBrief_01.pdf)

Julie Rialet-Cislaghi is Research and Policy Officer at Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage.


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