Early Marriage in Conflict and Displacement

Illustration of child bride looking in mirror

In 2015, more than 190 countries committed to end child marriage by 2030 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In 2017, a Human Rights Council Resolution recognized that child, early, and forced marriage is a human-rights violation.

Despite these promises, the latest estimates show that one in five girls marry under the age of 18 (UNICEF 2021). Recent studies and anecdotal evidence by humanitarians indicate that this rate is likely even higher for girls who are caught up in conflict and humanitarian crises (Girls Not Brides 2020; UNICEF 2016).

The limited information we have on early marriage focuses on the harmful aspects. It shows that early marriage limits adolescent girls’ abilities to make decisions about their lives. It puts them more at risk of poverty. It makes them more vulnerable to abuse and discrimination. It threatens their physical and mental health. It disrupts their educations. And it prevents their full participation in economic, political, and social spheres (Mazurana & Marshak 2020; UNFPA and UNICEF 2021).

Therefore, the global discourse on early marriage centers on its harmful effects and humanitarian actors develop their interventions based on assumptions stemming from the limited body of evidence.

Our team was concerned about the decisions being made on behalf of female youth with such limited evidence.

As a first step to address the evidence gap, in 2019, together with Save the Children Denmark, we began the Early Marriage in Conflict and Displacement: Research to Practice and Policy research program with a cohort study in two countries (see Cohort Study Tab). What we found confirms and challenges many of the assumptions made in the literature. We found that while many female youth are indeed forced into early marriages, others actively participate in the decision to marry. In addition, many early marriages took place between age mates, rather than exclusively between older men and younger females. We also found that early marriages genuinely helped to improve some girls’ lives. In these cases, it led to better economic situations, decreased social isolation, and expanded education and work opportunities. For others, early marriage narrowed freedoms, caused severe emotional hardship, and led to abuse. We found that girls who married underage and were later widowed or divorced are particularly vulnerable to problems related to poverty, social exclusion, and physical and mental health.

Voices of female youth in South Sudan and Iraqi Kurdistan describe the complexities of early marriage best:

  • This 20 year old who had been disabled because of war, explained how her young marriage occurred: “I thought about the struggles that my mother goes through to feed us, and so I just decided to get married so that I can at least reduce some responsibilities. I am the first-born child. I told my mother about the man’s intention for marriage, and she accepted it. My husband then came with his father and uncles to meet my older brothers. He paid 30 cows, and I went to his home.”
  • This 20 year old Syrian refugee who married at 17 described her husband, “He loves me, understands, and respects me. He takes my ideas into his plans and we collaborate. For this reason, he is the source of strength in my life.”
  • And in Juba, this displaced South Sudanese youth who married at 16 explained that her life now “is better than before [I married] because I see he cares about me. He tells his family to treat me and my daughter well….right now he is the one who pays my school fees.”
  • This 20-year-old Syrian refugee who married at 17 has a different story. She had to give up her daughter the day she was born because she was pursuing a divorce from her abusive husband. “After they took my girl…I couldn’t share my pain with anyone. The divorce itself is a stigma in the community. I didn’t get any support. I became sick after that. I have a thyroid illness because I am sad all the time.”
  • An 18 year old widow, displaced in South Sudan, described her life after losing her husband, whom she married at 14: “I am not excited about anything because I am struggling about everything together with my child. Nothing is good in my life or in my daughter’s life, and we are just living… I worry a lot about getting soap to wash her clothes…I also worry about getting her some milk to drink.”

This latest research shows that we do not know enough about the kinds of early marriages that exist and therefore do not know how to effectively support adolescent girls in the ways that they need—this might be interventions to avoid early marriage in the first place, it could be help to overcome a bad early marriage, and it could be assistance to thrive in a positive early marriage.

We need significantly more empirical research on early marriage in general and specifically in conflict and humanitarian crises settings.

Our research team is seeking partners for three types of research projects on early marriage. Contact Kimberly Howe to discuss these and other ideas.

  1. Continuing the Cohort: We seek to continue working with the 100 female youth that we have been following since 2019 to understand the causes and consequences of early marriage over time. Continuing with the same cohort will enable us to further unpack the factors that support resilience and feed directly into humanitarian programing in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and South Sudan in real-time.
  2. Replicating the Cohort: Given the success of the initial cohort study, we seek to replicate this study in more countries affected by displacement and conflict and with different types of participants including, more boys and men and children born into early marriages. This project will help us build a more detailed global evidence base on the factors that prevent early marriage and those that best respond to the needs of female youth after they marry. This global evidence base will provide information for the specific contexts and be more generalizable to help humanitarians better support female youth around the globe.
  3. Mixed Methods, Multi-Country Longitudinal Study: As noted above, no one has ever measured exactly how much the practice of early marriage increases during conflict and displacement, for which female youth and where. This ambitious study will do that and more to fill a huge evidence gap and provide humanitarians, advocates, and policy makers the global evidence that they need on the efficacy of different interventions across sectors. In addition to measuring the prevalence and incidence of early marriage around the world for the first time, we will collect data on the causes and consequences of early marriage. The longitudinal design will enable us to see which shocks lead to early marriage over time and what the short-, medium- and long-term impacts are to the adolescent girl and her eventual children. The holistic nature of the project will support the well-being of displaced populations living in conflict, directly prevent cases of early marriage, and support those who were married as children.

Since 2019, we have been working with Save the Children Denmark on a cohort study that provides a rare and holistic view into the lives of female youth living in displacement and early marriage. In real time, this study observes how decisions are made, how female youth respond to shocks, and how they cope with challenging life circumstances. The design allows us to support policies and humanitarian programs continuously.

Working with local researchers, we are following a cohort more than 100 displaced female youth between the ages of 14 and 23 in South Sudan and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Researchers interview participants regularly and invite them to express themselves through drawings and photography. The cohort includes female youth with a range of marital statuses (unmarried, married, divorced, and widowed), those who had early pregnancies, and those living with a variety of disabilities.

Over time, we have built trust and these female youth and they have invited us into their intimate spheres. During the course of the study, participants have married as children, experienced physical and sexual violence, divorced, engaged in custody battles, graduated from high school, become mothers, and resettled to third countries. We have learned how their experiences of conflict impact their lives, including their decisions to marry young. And we have learned how marrying young has affected their lives in positive and negative ways. Through these intimate relationships, we have begun to unpack the factors that might prevent female youth from marrying young, and the kinds of support female youth who marry young need to thrive. This has helped our partner organizations better support married and unmarried female yough in their lives.

In 2022 we released a series of briefing papers that prioritize the voices of female youth (see Publications Tab). The papers examine these issues:

The first two years of the study were funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 786064, DANIDA, and Tufts Springboard.

We will continue this cohort study as long as possible so that we can continue to learn from these female youth with whom our researchers have developed close relationships. Contact Kimberly Howe if you are interested in supporting this study.

Report cover thumbnail

This report provides insights and perspectives from participatory workshops with displaced female youth in the Kurdistan region of the Republic of Iraq (KRI).

Kimberly Howe, Elizabeth Stites, Khalat Ahmed Hammada, Shilan Sulaiman

• May 2023
cover of report: Education and Female Youth in Dsiplacement in South Sudan and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq

This paper examines the role of marital status and motherhood on schooling experience and educational interruption, attainment, and aspirations in South Sudan and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Kimberly Howe, Meg Moran, Elizabeth Stites, Anastasia Marshak, Khalat Ahmed Hammada, Shilan Sulaiman, Nyachar Lony, Tabitha Nyaleel Maguek

• November 2022
Cover of Research Report

Very little is known about the experiences of female youth who marry under 18 and later become separated, divorced, or widowed. This briefing paper underscores the unique vulnerabilities and challenges that these youth face in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and South Sudan.

Kimberly Howe, Elizabeth Stites, Meg Moran, Anastasia Marshak, Khalat Ahmed Hammada, Shilan Sulaiman, Nyachar Lony, Tabitha Nyaleel Maguek

• August 2022
Cover of report on MHPSS and child marriage

This briefing paper outlines the situation of displaced female youth—unmarried, married, divorced, widowed—from a mental health and psychosocial functioning (MHPSS) lens.

Kimberly Howe, Anastasia Marshak, Elizabeth Stites, Meg Moran, Khalat Ahmed Hammada, Shilan Sulaiman, Tabitha Nyaleel Maguek

• August 2022
Early Pregnancy Report Cover

This briefing paper follows displaced female youth in South Sudan who had unintended pregnancies. It describes the circumstances leading to early pregnancy, their after becoming aware of their pregnancies, and the impact of their pregnancies on marriage, education, mental health, family relationships, and household economics.

Meg Moran, Kimberly Howe, Elizabeth Stites, Nyachar Lony, Tabitha Nyaleel Maguek

• May 2022
Perspective on early marriage report cover

This briefing paper focuses on the decision-making processes that led displaced female youth to marry early, based on their experiences in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and South Sudan.

Kimberly Howe, Elizabeth Stites, Meg Moran, Anastasia Marshak, Khalat Ahmed Hammada, Shilan Sulaiman, Nyachar Lony, Tabitha Nyaleel Maguek

• May 2022
Life after Marriage report cover

This briefing paper examines the experiences of life after marriage for female youth who married under the age of 18 in South Sudan and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. It describes how early marriage affects education, mental health, protection issue, and family dynamics.

Elizabeth Stites, Kimberly Howe, Meg Moran, Anastasia Marshak, Khalat Ahmed Hammada, Shilan Sulaiman, Nyachar Lony, Tabitha Nyaleel Maguek

• May 2022
child marriage in humanitarian settings

This report is a comprehensive and user-friendly concept note for a database on child marriage in humanitarian settings, a first step in eradicating the problem.

Dyan Mazurana, Anastasia Marshak

• January 2020

This research program is designed to bridge empirical findings with humanitarians, advocates, and policy makers to improve early marriage prevention and response. We engage key stakeholders in a variety of learning events, such as:

Spring 2022: Findings from the cohort study informed Save the Children International’s Global Guidance on Mental Health and Psychosocial Functioning (MHPSS).

April 2022: Howe presented at the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) conference on early pregnancy and early motherhood in conflict and displacement.

April 2022: Howe and Moran ran workshops for Save the Children Iraq and South Sudan to help the program staff determine how to best use the research findings to inform their programs. Based on these workshops, the teams modified their humanitarian programs to improve early marriage prevention and response.

May 2022: Howe and Stites together with Meg Moran, Khalat Ahmed Hammada, and Nyachar Lony launched their study on Early Marriage among Female Youth in Displacement in Copenhagen to Danish government representatives, UN, and NGOs.

June 2022: Howe and Stites ran two inter-agency global webinars for humanitarians on research results.

June 2022: Howe presented research findings to the Gender and Adolescent: Global Evidence (GAGE) research project at ODI.