Fragile States, Fragile Lives: Child Marriage Amid Disaster and Conflict

July 30, 2014

Weakened institutions, lack of economic opportunity, and increased occurrence of sexual violence and assault—already identified as drivers of child marriage—are exacerbated during armed conflict and natural disaster.

In a recently released paper by the Council on Foreign Relations, titled “Fragile States, Fragile Lives: Child Marriage Amid Disaster and Conflict,” the Women and Foreign Policy program explores the relationship between child marriage prevalence rates and fragile states. Existing data and an abundance of qualitative evidence point to a relationship: Countries with high rates of child marriage tend to be among the world’s most fragile and least stable.

The numbers tell part of the story: Nine of the ten countries with the highest rates of child marriage appear on the OECD list of fragile states. Three of the top ten countries on the Fund For Peace’s Failed States Index have child marriage rates well over fifty percent. And nine of the bottom eleven countries on UNDP’s Human Development Index have child marriage rates greater than forty percent.

As social upheaval and gender-based violence increase in times of disaster and conflict, families frequently turn to child marriage as a way to protect their girls from the disproportionate burden women and children bear during natural disaster and armed conflict. As discussed in “Fragile States, Fragile Lives,” women and girls make up 70 percent of the world’s internally displaced population, and more than half of the 200 million individuals affected each year by natural disasters. During fragile times, girls become targets of gender-based violence, most notably sexual assault.

In the case of Syria alone, more than half of the estimated 2.8 million Syrian refugees are under the age of eighteen, and sexual violence in Syria has been documented as a weapon of war. Rape has also resulted in what is seen to be an increase in child marriage in Syria.

Altogether, nearly 30 million children have experienced violence or abuse before age eighteen in countries with ongoing conflict.

Armed conflict and natural disaster aggravate child marriage as parents look to alleviate the economic burden and fear caused by instability. In Niger, Bangladesh, Somalia, and Uganda, the practice has been used as a survival strategy during times of drought and food insecurity. Additionally, families in Liberia and Sierra Leone have reportedly turned to child marriage due to economic destitution and violence in refugee camps.

Insecurity also impairs a country’s education system, particularly limiting educational opportunity for girls. Parents often keep their daughters home from school to ensure their security. Hindering education further contributes to both early marriage and to increased poverty.

The high rate of child marriage in fragile states is the result of an intricate web of safety risks, societal traditions, educational disruption, and limited economic opportunity. While existing research points to a connection between high child marriage rates and fragile states, there is a data gap around the degree to which the two are correlated. The paper suggests that closing the data gap would not only protect the youngest and most at-risk members of communities in crisis, but would also lead to more targeted interventions and humanitarian responses aimed at girls and women during and following natural disasters and armed conflict.

What can be done?

Additionally, the paper offers steps that the U.S. government, multilateral organizations, and relief agencies can take to eradicate child marriage amid the twin ills of armed conflict and natural disaster. To protect the world’s girls, to preserve their childhoods and education, and to allow them to fully contribute to their communities, these actions include:

Collecting reliable, consistent, and comprehensive data, disaggregated by gender and age, to provide a detailed understanding of the needs and risks of those affected by disaster and conflict, including refugees and internally displaced people.
Elevating the issue of child marriage in U.S. diplomacy and in interactions with multilateral organizations and international NGOs to ensure that the health, educational, and economic needs of girls are not forgotten during periods of disaster and conflict.
Immediately integrating the unique needs of girls into post-disaster and post-conflict planning.