Ending Child Marriage in Humanitarian Settings: Ensuring Accountability to Girls Through Improved Data, Collection, Analysis and Use

Written by Leslie Archambeault, Director of Gender Policy & Advocacy Policy

Child marriage is form of gender-based violence that robs girls of their agency to make decisions about their lives, disrupts their education, and drives vulnerability to ongoing violence, discrimination and abuse. It  prevents girls’ full participation in economic, political, and social spheres throughout their lives. Despite global progress, 12 million girls marry each year before they reach the age of 18. By 2030, over 150 million more girls will before they are 18, and 28.1 million will marry before the age of 15, based on current rates.

Girls who marry under the age of 18 are also at higher risk of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth. Complications during pregnancy and childbirth is the number one killer of girls aged 15-19 worldwide. Significantly, 90% of births to girls aged 15-19 occur within a marriage.

Girls living in countries affected by conflict or other humanitarian crises are often the most vulnerable of all to child marriage. Factors that put girls at risk for child marriage in stable times such as poverty, lack of education, and insecurity are exacerbated during times of instability. In fact, 9 out of the 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriage are considered fragile or extremely fragile states.   

One of the reasons why child marriage in humanitarian settings continues to persist is a significant lack of data. The complex and often under-resourced humanitarian environments present a number of barriers to addressing this issue, even as humanitarian actors continue to flag this critical problem.

A newly published white paper commissioned by Save the Children, Addressing Data Gaps on Child, Early and Forced Marriage in Humanitarian Settings analyzes the current evidence and knowledge base on child marriage in humanitarian settings to see why such data gaps persist. It proposes recommendations for enhancing current data collection tools, analysis, and use in order to effectively address the issue through prevention and response efforts.

The white paper, published during the final days of the annual 16 Days of Activism to End Gender-Based Violence, is the culmination of extensive interviews with key actors across the humanitarian system, as well as with technical experts on gender-based violence prevention and response, and child marriage more specifically.

The research found that current data collection tools measuring prevalence of child marriage in different contexts, fail to adequately account for child marriage in humanitarian settings because of a few key reasons:

  • The tools currently used are mainly carried out in stable settings, due to limitations in the tools themselves;
  • Current data collection tools are used every 3-10 years, meaning critical data from periods of fragility may be missed;
  • Collection of data on forcibly displaced populations, including refugees and internally displaced persons, is not consistent and difficult to capture;
  • Data collected is primarily country-level but does not get to community or more local analysis, which is needed for humanitarian contexts;
  • The data only provides information on prevalence, and not incidence.

The resounding conclusion of these interviews and the paper’s analysis was that the ongoing data gaps on child marriage in humanitarian settings are a complicated and daunting issue to tackle – yet there are potential ways forward if the international community is willing to work together.

Building on existing data collection mechanisms would allow for a much greater understanding of the complexity of child marriage in humanitarian crises. This would require a great deal of cooperation and alignment across the various humanitarian response actors, particularly within the United Nations’ humanitarian architecture.

Humanitarian actors across the United Nations, government, and civil society, must demonstrate commitment to urgently addressing child marriage in humanitarian settings – and must make addressing data gaps a priority. This includes a commitment to sustained financial and human resources to support the collection, coordination, analysis, disaggregation and use of enhanced data on child marriage in humanitarian settings.

Without consistent and sustained data collection, analysis and use on child marriage in humanitarian settings, a fundamental rights violation impacting millions of girls across the globe will remain largely invisible. Humanitarian Needs Assessments and Response Plans will fail to adequately provide for addressing child marriage, and funding needs will not be met. Even more significantly, girls will be unable to hold governments and other duty-bearers accountable for commitments they have made to end child marriage in every context, including under such international legal and policy frameworks as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

The humanitarian community must take action now to end child marriage – and must work together to address data gaps through enhancing current data collection tools and developing new ways of working that break down sector and agency silos. Girls everywhere have the right to grow up healthy, educated, and protected from violence.


Fulfilling the Promise of the Global Compact on Refugees

Written by Janti Soeripto, President and COO, Save the Children

These last years have been historic for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. For the first time in its history, the number of refugees under UNHCR’s mandate exceeded 20 million, more than half of which were children. On the whole, we are seeing the highest levels of displacement on record. In 2019 conflicts in places like Syria, South Sudan and Afghanistan have continued to force people from their homes while protracted refugee situations, such as that of the Rohingya in Bangladesh, drag on without a safe, dignified and sustainable solution in sight.

Nevertheless, we have also witnessed some important breakthroughs for refugees, including when in 2018 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Global Compact on Refugees, a major international agreement facilitated by UNHCR. The Compact was developed with the goal of creating a stronger, more unified response to large movements of refugees and protracted refugee situations, along with more equitable burden- and responsibility-sharing between refugee hosting countries and donor countries.

The specific vulnerabilities faced by refugee children are mainstreamed throughout the Compact, thanks in no small part to strong, strategic advocacy by Save the Children and the Initiative for Child Rights in the Global Compacts, which Save the Children co-chairs. In particular, the Compact makes specific references to inclusion of children in national protection services and education systems, and makes the groundbreaking promise to ensure children are back in school within three months of arrival in a host country.

A Global Refugee Forum

Now, from December 16-18, nearly one year to the day from the adoption of the Compact, I will join Heads of State and other stakeholders, including refugees themselves, in Geneva, Switzerland for the first ever Global Refugee Forum. At this momentous occasion we will foster momentum for the Compact by announcing new, concrete, and above all, impactful pledges and by sharing good practices to inspire innovative approaches to supporting refugees and host communities. As a co-sponsor of the Forum’s Education and Protection (as the Initiative for Child Rights in the Global Compacts) areas of focus, Save the Children has been instrumental in shaping the Forum’s agenda.

Pledging is one of the most important elements of the Forum and Save the Children will be sharing several. For example, we know that teachers are at the frontline of refugee education work and need to be supported while coping with the challenges of the environments in which they work, so we pledge to improve the capacity and working conditions of refugee and host community teachers.  We will also announce the expansion of our Return to Learning program in Lebanon, Uganda and Colombia, which combines programmatic interventions with advocacy to get refugee children back to learning within 90 days of arrival in a host country. Through the Initiative for Child Rights in the Global Compacts we made pledges to improve cross-border child protection cooperation and case management and to strengthen funding and resources for child protection. The Initiative for Child Rights in the Global Compacts also developed a guidance paper to assist stakeholders in positioning children at the center of their pledges.

The Way Forward

In the lead up to the Forum, we worked closely with UNHCR, Member States and other stakeholders to produce the Global Framework for Refugee Education, a comprehensive guide and pledging framework to help achieve inclusive and equitable quality education for refugees by 2030. While the Framework marks an important step forward, it cannot be viewed as an end in itself. We know that millions of refugee children and youth are missing out on their right to quality education, and that allowing the education of millions of refugee children and youth to be cut short by conflict and displacement is not just ethically indefensible, it is economically ruinous. Addressing this injustice and achieving the full promise of the Compact and the Sustainable Development Goals will require a Global Plan of Action for Refugee Education that takes stock of pledges made during the Forum and identifies where the gaps remain.

As we reach the end of our Centennial year I’m reminded of our founder Eglantyne Jebb, who once said: “Save the Children is often told that its aims are impossible- that there has always been child suffering and there always will be. We know. It’s impossible only if we make it so. It’s impossible only if we refuse to attempt it.” Ensuring all refugee children can reach their full potential is a monumental task, but it is not an impossible one. Indeed, with the Global Compact on Refugees, the Global Refugee Forum and the potential for a Global Plan of Action for Refugee Education, we have the tools to achieve this goal. I urge those in governments, the United Nations and civil society to heed Eglantyne Jebb’s words and join us in working toward a world where all children can survive and thrive.