By Ellen Travers, Head of Learning at Girls Not Brides
The world has never talked about child marriage as much as it does now. If you look at Google Trends, which tracks what people search for online and how often, the term ‘child marriage’ has reached its highest peak in the past ten years.
This conversation has been a long time coming. Every year, 15 million girls are married before the age of 18. Marriage means the end of their childhood, their education and their autonomy.
Child marriage is also one of the most important development challenges we face, hindering the success of at least 8 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
Addressing child marriage at the World Humanitarian Summit
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 as a result of emergencies such as conflict, displacement or natural disasters.
On May 23 and 24, world leaders will gather at the first World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey. Part of their agenda is to “initiate a set of concrete actions and commitments aimed at enabling countries and communities to better prepare for and respond to crises, and be resilient to shocks.”
It would be a mistake for the World Humanitarian Summit to ignore the critical issue of child marriage.
Understanding the links between child marriage and crises
It is no coincidence that eight out of the ten countries with the highest child marriage rates are considered fragile states. When a crisis hits, adolescent girls are often the first to suffer.
This happens for a few 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 view child marriage as a necessity to reduce the economic burden on the family and, hopefully, secure a more stable home for their daughter.
In Bangladesh, for instance, extreme poverty provoked by river erosion and floods, combined with gender discrimination, often pushes families to adopt child marriage as a survival strategy.
Increased risk of violence also heightens parents’ fears about girls’ safety and sexuality. Parents may view child marriage as a form of protection for their daughters, as well as a way of safeguarding the family honour. It 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.
Child marriage, 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.
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. Leaders at the World Humanitarian Summit have an opportunity to change this. They can:
1. Recognise child marriage as a critical issue at all times, including during conflicts and disasters.
2. Consider how to 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 camps.
3. Do more research. Collecting data by marital status, gender and age, and understanding the contextual drivers of child marriage will help us develop more effective interventions.
The World Humanitarian Summit aims to enable countries and communities to be better prepared, and more resilient, to crises.
Currently, a number of families living in fragile contexts see marrying their daughters as a solution to their problems. If we really mean to build their resilience, we must give them viable alternatives to child marriage.
Girls Not Brides is a global partnership of more than 550 civil society organisations from over 70 countries committed to ending child marriage and enabling girls to fulfill their potential. Find out more at GirlsNotBrides.org and on Twitter and Facebook.
Stand with girls and women everywhere: Tell world leaders we won’t end extreme poverty without ending global gender inequality.