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.