Child marriage, defined as formal marriage or informal union before the age of 18, violates every child’s right to reach their full potential. Various United Nations Conventions deem child marriage a fundamental violation of human rights (UNGA, 1949, 1989, 2014), as well as a harmful practice because it denies girls and boys the right to the highest attainable standard of health, places restrictions on life opportunities including the right to an education, and restricts opportunities – especially for girls – to participate fully in family, cultural and civic activities (Marphatia et al., 2017). Despite laws and international commitments to reduce the practice, child marriage remains widespread, with one in five girls married before their eighteenth birthday, globally (UNFPA, 2020).
In both development and humanitarian contexts, child marriage is rooted in gender inequality and sustained by cultural and social norms, poverty and lack of opportunities. However, crises may amplify or alter pre-existing drivers, or introduce new drivers, or even potentially, new moderators. Crises are often associated with increased sexual violence, the breakdown in the rule of law, disruption of social structures, as well as internal and international displacement, all of which have been shown to have impacts on child marriage in various contexts.
Studies suggest that rates of child marriage tend to be particularly high in insecure environments (Tembon and Fort, 2008). Of the countries with the highest rates of child marriage, the majority are also among the most vulnerable to natural disasters and most frequently found on lists of failed states (Lemmon, 2014). According to the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) report “A Girl No More”, 9 of the top 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriage were considered fragile or conflict-affected states (Schlecht, 2016). Most of the 25 countries with the highest rates of child marriage are also at high risk of natural disasters (Atkinson and Bruce, 2015).
The extent to which humanitarian settings impact child marriage practices and the processes through which they may modify its drivers are not fully understood. In an effort to establish an evidence base for child marriage in humanitarian settings, generally, and for South Asia, in particular, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Asia and the Pacific Regional Office (APRO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Regional Office for South Asia (ROSA) partnered with the WRC and the Center for Humanitarian Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to conduct two country studies on child marriage in humanitarian settings in Bangladesh and Nepal.
This report combines the findings from research with conflict-affected Rohingya refugees from Myanmar residing in Bangladesh, and earthquakeaffected communities in Nepal. The findings analyse similarities and differences across the contexts, in order to learn about these two settings and also to understand what might be generalized to child marriage in humanitarian settings more broadly. The hope is that the findings from these studies will inform programme interventions in these settings and provide insight into child marriage in humanitarian contexts.