Perspectives on early marriage: the voices of female youth in Iraqi Kurdistan and South Sudan who married under age 18

Perspective on early marriage report cover

The decision to marry early is influenced by many factors, including circumstances related to conflict, displacement, and COVID-19. Most studies on early marriage in humanitarian settings focus on understanding the perceptions of unmarried girls and their caregivers. This briefing paper, instead, focuses on the decision-making processes that led displaced female youth to marry early, based on their actual experiences in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and South Sudan. Reasons for early marriage are varied and relate to love; early pregnancy; the wish for meaning, social connection, and motherhood; coping with the emotional effects of war; a wish for increased freedom; escape from family violence and community harassment; seeking educational, economic, or resettlement opportunities; family pressure; sexual violence; and force.

Main findings of the study include:

  • In both country contexts, the majority of participants, including those who married as minors, believe the ideal age for marriage is above 18 years of age.
  • Not all early marriages are forced marriages. Some participants in both countries described partial or full participation in the decision to marry early.
  • In South Sudan, some female youth described that their marriages occurred through force, because they wanted to help their family economically, because they were out of school or feeling idle, because of an unintended pregnancy, or for love. They named bridewealth as a driving factor for early marriage.
  • Female youth in the KRI described that their marriages occurred through force; because of family pressure; to improve their economic, educational, or resettlement opportunities; to have a sense of meaning; to decrease social isolation; to have protection against sexual harassment; or for love.
  • Education appears to be a protective factor against early marriage in the KRI and South Sudan.
  • Female youth recognize and name early and forced marriages as one of the main challenges displaced girls face. Improved access to education, increased economic opportunities, proactive leadership, and the eradication of bridewealth were proposed as solutions.

One in five girls is married under the age of 18 globally, and this practice likely increases during crises, including conflict, displacement, and COVID 19. While the negative repercussions on the child bride, her family, and eventual children are well-documented, little is known about the needs, challenges, opportunities, and constraints faced by female youth in displacement, including how early marriage transpires, and how lives unfold after marriage. As such, the Feinstein International Center together with Save the Children Denmark followed a cohort of displaced adolescent girls in South Sudan and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) between the ages of 14 and 23 for 1.5 years using holistic, participatory methods.

The sample included internally displaced South Sudanese in South Sudan, and Syrian refugees and displaced Yazidis in the KRI.  Research participants were unmarried, married (as minors), divorced, and widowed. Many girls in the cohort became pregnant as minors, and/or have physical, psychological, and intellectual disabilities.

The researchers conducted more than 600 interviews with more than 100 members of the cohort. This data will inform briefing papers on six topics:

  1. early pregnancy and sexual and reproductive health
  2. decision making around the practice of early marriage
  3. life after early marriage
  4. the special situation of divorced and widowed female youth
  5. mental health and psychological support, displacement, and early marriage
  6. education, displacement, and early marriage

Each paper provides cross-sectoral, concrete recommendations for humanitarian organizations seeking to prevent and respond to early marriage in fragile settings.

This project received support from Save the Children Denmark, DANIDA, Tufts University, and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Program under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 786064.






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