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Five ways to prevent child marriage in refugee communities: 280 girls speak out

By Julie Freccero

South Sudanese refugee girls cut out photos for collages during a participatory research workshop in Palorinya camp.

By Julie Freccero and Audrey Taylor

South Sudanese refugee girls cut out photos for collages during a participatory research workshop in Palorinya camp.

Just before global travel came to a halt with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we traveled some 700 miles by road from Kampala to Bidi Bidi and Palorinya—two refugee settlements near the South Sudan border that are home to nearly 400,000 South Sudanese refugees—to talk with girls about child marriage. Bidi Bidi, the largest of the two, holds 270,000 refugees, making it the second largest refugee settlement in the world. In both camps, refugees have fled violence from more than six years of civil war in South Sudan.

Child marriage is an ongoing challenge in these settlements, as in many refugee communities around the world, yet research to inform prevention efforts is extremely limited. Our research in Uganda and Jordan explored what puts girls at risk of child marriage, what protects them from it, how decisions about girls' marriages are made, and what we can do to prevent it. To answer these questions, we asked the girls themselves—some 280 of them, ages 10 to 17—in engaging ways.

In Uganda, we held workshops where girls made collages and drawings, cut out flower maps, and participated in musical chairs-style discussion groups to inspire discussion. We explored topics such as who girls turn to for advice and support, what services and support girls need, and possible solutions to prevent early marriage in their communities. These activities, chosen by youth advisory groups in each location, gave the girls fun, creative ways of expressing themselves, provided them with a space to collectively reflect on critical issues with their peers, and enabled them to have some ownership over the research process. We also talked to parents, religious and community leaders, and practitioners addressing child marriage in each community.

In Jordan, the COVID-19 pandemic required us to adapt our methods. Although we could not travel to the research sites, our local partners carried out similar work by conducting interviews by phone and workshops over Zoom or with masks and physical distancing in-person. Girls described an alarming increase in marriages of peers in their communities since the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, attributing this to: the desire to accelerate marriage plans in order to avoid the cost of an expensive wedding; the desire to escape from the disproportionate, increased burden of housework, and mobility restrictions placed on girls; pressure from parents to marry due to increased economic hardship; and school closures that made girls feel like marriage was now their best option.

Child Marriage Report Cover Our just-released research, the first of its kind— Child Marriage in Humanitarian Crises: Girls and Parents Speak Out on Risk and Protective Factors, Decision-Making, and Solutions —is co-sponsored by Plan International and Save the Children. We include a special report on the impacts of COVID-19 on child marriage — some of the first empirical evidence on the topic.

Here are five key takeaways:

1. Addressing violence within the home is essential to preventing child marriage in crisis. The need to escape situations of abuse, neglect, and excessive domestic work is a key why girls marry early. Child marriage programming should integrate efforts to address child abuse and other forms of violence such as by educating caregivers on positive, engaged parenting.

2. Peers continue to have a strong influence in marriage decisions for girls in displacement settings. Practitioners should work to counteract negative peer pressure wherever possible and incorporate opportunities for positive peer pressure in programming, for example, by providing peer-to-peer counseling programs or offering social opportunities for married girls.

3. Girls often play a role in marriage decision-making. While many girls have little to no say in marriage decision-making, many have a significant say in the final decision over whom and when to marry, including some who have full autonomy. Practitioners should gain a clear understanding of the range of girls’ agency represented in their communities and design interventions that support girls in these decisions and create an enabling environment for girls to delay marriage.

4. Breaking down barriers to education for girls is as critical as ever in preventing and responding to child marriage. While primary and secondary schools operate in many formalized displacement contexts, girls often face a number of financial and practical barriers to accessing them, including school fees, lack of pads and sanitary products, long distances to schools, discrimination against married or pregnant girls, and sexual harassment and violence at school or while traveling there. Practitioners should prioritize doing whatever it takes to keep girls in school for as long as possible.

5. Financial support is a promising component of child marriage programming. In particular, girls and caregivers asked for cash assistance to relieve extreme financial hardship, offset financial incentives for child marriage, and enable parents to provide for their children’s basic needs—all major contributors to child marriage rates in displacement contexts.

During the official launch of the report in Copenhagen on May 19, the Child Marriage in Humanitarian Settings Initiative announced the third phase of the study: research findings will be used to design a groundbreaking pilot to prevent child marriage in humanitarian contexts that we will evaluate in the coming year.*

*Interested in supporting girls and preventing child marriage? Learn more here .