Child Marriage in Humanitarian Settings: Looking at Rohingya and Syrian Refugee Communities

Sarah Syed
Vol. 39 Article Editor

Child marriage in humanitarian settings, particularly in Rohingya and Syrian refugee communities, has increased as a result of extreme poverty, rampant violence, fear of gender based-violence, and political strife.[1] Although the prevalence data for child marriage in regions of crisis are difficult to acquire, UNICEF has determined that child marriage has reemerged in some regions where the practice was previously nearly eradicated.[2] It is vital to understand the specific conditions that are increasing the prevalence of child marriage in Rohingya refugee camps in Myanmar and Bangladesh, as well as in Syrian refugee communities in Lebanon. The issue of child marriage has been at the forefront of international human rights law for some time,[3] but the context-specific focus on the effect of humanitarian settings on child marriage has only recently been explored. The United Nations General Assembly defines “humanitarian settings” as, “humanitarian emergencies, situations of forced displacement, armed conflict and natural disaster.”[4] These conditions often make girls more vulnerable to early and forced marriage.[5] Nine out of the ten countries with the highest child marriage rates are under humanitarian conditions.[6] International Law Addressing Child Marriage Some of the most prominent international mechanisms that protect against child marriage are The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), The Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The groundwork for the international criminalization of child marriage is the UDHR, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948.[7] Article 16 of the UDHR states that, “Men and women of full age…have the right to marry and found a family…. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending parties.”[8] Of course, consent can only be achieved by those with fully developed mental and emotional capacities. Building upon the groundwork of the UDHR, the 1989 CRC recognizes that children are entitled to human rights under international law, though it does not directly address child marriage.[9] This Convention signified a shift away from the traditional view of the child as a dependent recipient of privileges bestowed at the discretion the family, community, and the State. Article 1 of the CRC states that, “A child means every human being below the age of eighteen years unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier.”[10] Directed towards States, the Convention prohibits marriage between two persons who have not attained their “majority.”[11] CEDAW, one of the most vital international protections for girls and women, is a treaty adopted in 1979.[12] Article 16 of the treaty declares that men and women have: “(a) the same right to enter into marriage; (b) the same right to freely choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with their free and full consent; (c) the same rights and responsibilities during marriage and at its dissolution; (d) the same rights and responsibilities as parents, irrespective of their marital status, in matters relating to their children, in all cases the interests of the children shall be paramount; (e) the same rights to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights; and (f) the same rights and responsibilities with regard to guardianship, trusteeship and adoption of children.”[13] In addressing child marriage, CEDAW states that, “The betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage and to make the registration of marriages in an official registry compulsory.”[14] In June 2017, the 35th United Nations Human Rights Council passed resolution A/HRC/35/L.26 calling for strengthened efforts to prevent and eliminate child marriage in humanitarian contexts.[15] The resolution, which was co-sponsored by eighty-five states and adopted without a vote, was led by the Netherlands and Sierra Leone.[16] Directed at states, UN agencies, humanitarian actors, and others in crisis contexts, this resolution acknowledges that gender inequality is the root cause of child marriage.[17] The resolution is the first international law instrument that acknowledges sexual and reproductive health care as a preventative and responsive mechanism to child marriage in humanitarian settings.[18] Furthermore, the resolution marks the first time that states are formally accepting that civil registration and inclusive data must continue to be priorities in humanitarian settings, particularly for girls who are often overlooked.[19] Statistics pertaining to girls and civil registration, such as birth certificates, can be the only form of protection for girls from early and forced marriage.[20]   Rohingyas: Within Rohingya refugee and IDP camps, poverty and famine encourage families to marry off their girls at an early age.[21] Despite the difficulty in acquiring child marriage statistics among Rohingya refugees and IDPs, rates are expected to increase within the humanitarian camps.[22] The traditional practice of a dowry encourages child marriage, as the money acquired in the marriage contract is a way for families to temporarily acquire food and resources.[23] The “giving away” of a daughter also means less mouths to feed in the long run.[24] Due to the inaccessibility of data collection, UNICEF is looking to personal testimonies and anecdotal evidence within Rohingya IDP camps. Many reported that the policy increasing rations for families of eight people has increased child marriage.[25]   Syrian Refugees: Syrian refugees make up 30 percent of Lebanon’s population, the highest concentration per capita of refugees in the world.[26] Seventy percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live below the poverty line as compared to 40 percent of the Lebanese population.[27] UNICEF reports that early marriage practices among Syrian refugees has increased in Lebanon due to the conflict and displacement.[28] However, higher education rates are linked to a reduced likelihood of child marriage.[29] Girls dropping out of school can lead to a perpetuating cycle, and evidence shows that the mother’s education level has a huge impact on the decision to marry off a child.[30] In fact, two reports recently found that amongst Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a mother’s education was significantly associated with her children attending school.[31] This data indicates that limited education opportunities for girls in humanitarian and crisis settings increases their risk of being subjected to child marriage. Both Rohingya and Syrian refugee communities reported security threats and gender-based sexual violence as factors increasing the prevalence of child marriage.[32] Child marriage is seen as a way to protect girls from sexual violence and human trafficking.[33] Forced marriage to avoid societal ostracization and stigma is also common as a response to rape and consequent pregnancies of adolescent girls in camps.[34]   Child marriage in humanitarian settings is caused by more than the already-existing structural inequalities and patriarchal systems that strip girls of their autonomy.[35] Girls’ rights are the first to be sacrificed in the struggle to survive in these contexts. Child marriage in humanitarian settings, particularly in Rohingya and Syrian refugee communities, has increased as a result of extreme poverty, rampant violence, fear of gender based-violence, and lack of education access for girls.[36] However, the recent international attention towards humanitarian settings gives hope that proper measures will be taken to reduce child marriage and enforce the international mechanisms set in place to protect children around the world.

[1] UNICEF, Child Marriage in the Middle East and North Africa 53 (2017). [2] Id. [3] Rangita de Silva-de-Alwis, UNICEF Child Marriage and the Law (2008). [4] G.A. Res. A/HRC/35/L.26, at 3 (June 20, 2017). [5] Human Rights Council Adopts 2017 Resolution to End Child Marriage in Humanitarian Settings, Girls Not Brides (June 23, 2017), [6] Id. [7] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G.A. Res. 217A (III), U.N. Doc. A/810 at 71 (1948). [8] Id. at art. 16. [9] Convention on the Rights of the Child, Nov. 20, 1989, 1577 U.N.T.S. 3. [10] Id. at art. 1. [11] Emilie Lowe et al., The Development of Global Responses to Child, Early and Forced Marriages 19 (2017). [12] Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Dec. 18, 1979, 1249 U.N.T.S. 13. [13] Id. at art. 16. [14] Id. at art. 16. [15] Helena Minchew, Movement to End Child Marriage Grows as Human Rights Council Passes Resolution, International Women’s Health Coalition (June 22, 2017), [16] Id. [17] Id. [18] Id. [19] Id. [20] Id. [21] Maaz Hussain, Food and Safety Concerns Fuel Rise in Refugee Rohingya Child Brides, VOA News (Dec. 12, 2017) [22] Id. [23] Id. [24] Id. [25] Id. [26] Lisa Schlein, Large Syrian Refugee Population in Lebanon Sparks Social Tensions, VOA News (Dec. 6, 2016) [27] Id. [28] UNICEF, Child Marriage in the Middle East and North Africa – Lebanon Country Brief (2017). [29] Id. at 6. [30] Id. at 9. [31] Id. at 9. [32] Hussain, supra note 21; UNICEF, Child Marriage in the Middle East and North Africa – Lebanon Country Brief, supra note 26. [33] UNICEF, Child Marriage in the Middle East and North Africa 10 (2017). [34] Id. [35] Id. [36] Hussain, supra note 21; UNICEF, Child Marriage in the Middle East and North Africa – Lebanon Country Brief, supra note 26.