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Conflict zones reshape contours of child marriage

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 16 Dec 2013 08:45 AM
A Palestinian refugee girl from Syria peeps through a tent at Ain al-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp near the port-city of Sidon, southern Lebanon, on Oct. 8, 2013. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho
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Child marriage is often seen as an element in conflict zones and fragile states, but under the severe economic and social pressures of those situations, it can take on different characteristics than those typical during more peaceful times, according to experts at a recent roundtable discussion.

“What we have seen in conflict situations is that the conflict situation doesn’t create child marriage. Child marriage almost always pre-exists. But conflict situations can reshape child marriage,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, director of the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch.

Speaking at a roundtable discussion on child brides in conflict zones at New York’s Council on Foreign Relations, Gerntholtz said that she sees two significant changes in child marriages in conflict zones. One is a decrease in the age of marriage - that is, girls getting married at younger ages. The other change is that, due to a limited pool of possible mates, families make choices for their daughters that might not be acceptable in more normal times.

She said that in the Syrian refugee crisis, “in refugee camps we have seen resistance, so far, from parents to engage in these marriages.”

But, she said, interviews with refugee parents have indicated that as time goes on, economic pressure increases and fear for the virginity of their daughters mounts, “a time will come when they will have to consider marrying off their girls.”

Annie Bunting, director of the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on the Global Migrations of African Peoples at Toronto’s York University, said that “if (refugee) communities feel under threat, they do tend to regulate the sexuality and marriage of girls and young women.”

Particularly with economic pressure as a driver, she said, families will marry off children with disabilities and those thought to be lesbian or gay.

Girls married off at an early age in conflict zones face additional risks, Gerntholtz said, because of less access to contraception and healthcare and thus a greater risk of death or injury during pregnancy and childbirth.

Whether in or out of conflict zones, Gerntholtz said she sees education as having a protective effect against child marriage. “But what we haven’t focused on is the quality of that education,” she said on the subject of why girls don’t go on to secondary school.

She noted that the Millennium Development Goal of gender parity in getting children into school has been successful, but if parents don’t see education as valuable, they will pull them out.

Educated girls also often are at risk in a different way, Bunting said: “A perverse consequence of this is that girls are more expensive as a result (of being educated).” She noted that in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo there have been reports of increased sexual violence involving educated girls because sexual violence then decreases the bride price.

And if the kind of education offered isn’t the right kind of education, “it is not the solution,” said Yasmeen Hassan, global director of Equality Now, an international organisation dedicated to defending the human rights of girls and women. She was particularly critical of educational systems in countries where the curriculum is heavily influenced by religious tenets that further traditional gender stereotypes.

Religion isn’t always a driver behind child marriage, but it is a factor in Afghanistan, said Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women. “Often it can be fought if you can convince the father that consent is crucial for the marriage according to the Koran,” she said.

However, she pointed out that the Afghan parliament recently rejected a law proposing to ban marriage for girls under the age of 16, saying that it was un-Islamic because when the Prophet Mohammad married his third wife, Aisha, she was believed to be only 9 years old.

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