Child Marriage: A Growing Challenge in Conflict Settings
The practice of child marriage—which is commonly referred to as any formal marriage or informal union between a child under the age of 18 and an adult or another child—is not only a gross violation of human rights but also an impediment to security and development, and a form of gender-based violence that robs children of their childhood. Yet, even today, it remains prevalent worldwide with one in every five girls being tied into a union before reaching the age of 18.
As such, child marriage is a problem that cuts across countries, cultures, religions and ethnicities, and is rooted in entrenched social as well as gender inequalities, making girls disproportionately affected by the practice. However, these inequalities—including harmful gender norms, excessive poverty and diminishing access to basic services—are further exacerbated in emergency situations including conflicts, natural disasters, health crisis like the ongoing COVID19 pandemic, etc.; thereby, placing girls at an even higher risk of child marriage.
A prominent example of this can be seen in Afghanistan, where the dire economic situation—owing to the latest political instability, COVID19, food crisis and the extremely difficult winter—has been pushing more and more families into deeper poverty, forcing them to either put their children to work or marry girls off at a young age for bride money. Estimates put forth by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in fact suggest that 28% of Afghan women between 15 and 49 years of age were married before turning 18.
Besides, the top 1o countries with the highest child marriage prevalence rates are either fragile or extremely fragile and 12 out of the 20 countries with the highest child marriage rates are being confronted with the most severe humanitarian crises. This increase in the practice of child marriage—particularly in fragile contexts—can nonetheless, be pinned down to several driving factors:
· A mechanism to provide protection. In war zones and countries with high level of violence, girls and women are at a particular risk of physical and sexual violence. And faced with this insecurity along with the break down of rule of law, families see child marriage as a protection mechanism for their daughters.
· A way to uphold honour. In many communities, female sexuality is associated with family honour. And given that during conflicts, women and young girls become more and more vulnerable to gender violence, parents often opt for marrying away their daughters young to protect the honour of the family in response to the disruption of social networks and routines.
· A tool of conflict. Forced child marriage is also a common practice for non-state armed group fighters seeking to establish and multiply their control over the citizens with the parents often coerced to comply. This was particularly visible in Syria where accounts are recurrent of fighters demanding girls for marriage, in circumstances where it would be dangerous for the victims and their families to refuse.
· A way out of poverty. In conflicts, where socio-economic threats are increased with families loosing their jobs and livelihoods, child marriage is seen as a way to alleviate the economic hardship. This is because marrying off the girl child not only reduces the number of mouths to feed but in some cases might also provide extra income in the form a bride price.
And while, these driving factors might differ in specific conflict settings, the cruel irony is that child marriage creates similar or higher levels of insecurity than it prevents. The practice of child marriage can result in devastating consequences for young girls including sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, risky pregnancies, lifelong birth related complications, sexual and reproductive health diseases, maternal mortality and higher risk of domestic violence.
All these negative health, psychological and social consequences of early weddings are nonetheless exacerbated by the poor conditions and inadequate support systems that characterise conflict settings. Thus, families—facing conflict and the increased socio-economic threats—often get caught up in a cycle where child marriage is perceived as a coping mechanism, but in reality, it only leads to intensified levels of insecurity.
And because child marriage impacts a girl’s health, future and family, it also imposes substantial economic costs at both the national as well as global level with major implications for development and prosperity. Data suggests that child marriage is estimated to cost economies at least 1.7% of their GDP, increasing the total fertility rate of women by 17%, which particularly hurts developing countries that are already battling high population growth.