Child marriage in emergencies: A fatal mistake

Laurie Lee
Information volunteers, who work with Syrian refugees in Turkey to raise awareness on the issue of child marriage, demonstrate the risks of child-birth by girls with under-developed pelvises by attempting to push a wrapped-up egg through a bottle

While I was in Turkey during a recent visit (mid-January), I met a new group of CARE’s Information Volunteers as they began their first day of training. They are all Syrian refugees and their role is to provide other refugees with information about their rights, advice on services available to them, psychological support, and information about risks they and their families might face – such as child marriage.

There were nine women and nine men, mainly from Kobane and Aleppo. Seven of them had been teachers in Syria. Four had been studying at university and really want to finish their degrees. There was also a tailor, an engineer, a day labourer, a shopkeeper, a UNICEF worker...

We are only allowed to pay them enough to cover their transport and phone costs. So I asked them why they wanted to be volunteers. They said it did help them financially a tiny bit. They also wanted to learn more about their own rights. But primarily they were motivated to help their communities.

Three people practising a role play
Information volunteers rehearsing a drama about child marriage

Ever since the 2014 attack on Kobane, which led to as many as 194,000 Syrians fleeing to Turkey in the space of three weeks, CARE has been supporting refugees in Turkey with this information programme.

Due to research which had been done previously with Syrian refugees in Jordan, we knew there was a risk of increased child marriage among the families fleeing Kobane. In 2011, 12% of registered Syrian marriages in Jordan involved a girl 15-17 years. By 2014 that had risen to 32%. Unregistered marriages probably mean those numbers are low estimates.

CARE’s own research during a gender analysis of the Syrian refugee community in Jordan in January 2015 indicates that raising money from bride price is not the primary motivation for most families who marry off their children. One of our Information Volunteers told us that the bride price among Syrian refugees had fallen dramatically compared to what it had been before the war, in Syria.

In discussions with Syrians, CARE has learned that child marriage is primarily seen as a way to protect their girls. One of the main reasons given for the exodus of Kobane was to ‘protect our girls’.

Child marriage is also seen as a way to reduce the number of people in a household and the related economic burden of feeding their child, clothing her, etc. Families tell our Information Volunteers that if they had the financial means, they wouldn’t have resorted to child marriage.

Ensuring refugees have livelihoods is therefore a key step in reducing child marriage.

A woman demonstrating the risk of child birth by girls using a bottle and an egg
An information volunteer demonstrates the risk of child birth by girls with under-developed pelvises

But we are also preventing child marriage by training our Information Volunteers so that they can explain to their communities that far from protecting their girls, child marriage puts their girls in danger in several ways:

  • Once married, most girls will drop out of school forever.
  • They will not be able to control when they have sex. This is rape. It also means they cannot control how often they have children, so they cannot space their children.
  • It can kill them. Girls face enormous pressure to have children soon after marrying, whether or not they are physically or emotionally ready. The risks to both the mother and the baby are much higher if the mother’s body is not mature enough to give birth. The baby may not be able to pass through the birth canal. This can result in obstructed labour, a medical emergency requiring an emergency caesarean section. Delay in accessing emergency obstetric care for obstructed labour can lead to obstetric fistula or to uterine rupture, haemorrhage and the death of both the mother and the baby.
  • The infants of adolescent mothers are 50% more likely to die during their first year of life than those born to mothers in their 20s.
  • Childbirth is the second highest cause of death for girls aged 15-19 worldwide (after suicide, which may sometimes be related to child marriage as well).

So, far from protecting their girls, child marriage can be a fatal mistake. With the help of our Information Volunteers, this message is becoming better known.

Watch Muna’s story of her own early marriage in Syria prior to the conflict:

For more information (including references for the statistics quoted above), read CARE’s report “To protect her honour”: Child marriage in emergencies – the fatal confusion between protecting girls and sexual violence, and the blog by the report’s author, Danielle Spencer.

Laurie Lee's picture

Laurie Lee is Chief Executive of CARE International UK – Read his blog posts on our Insights policy and practice website