TdhUK Newsletter: Honouring World Refugee Day 2019
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, over half of the world’s nearly 25.4 million refugees are children under the age of 18.
Being forcibly displaced inevitably weakens both formal and informal infrastructure and networks that help to protect and keep children safe. Displacement typically exacerbates children’s exposure and vulnerability to a range of risks and harms, including child marriage, and there is a growing evidence-base indicating that child marriage increases as children and families undergo forced migration.
Child marriage is identified as a fundamental violation of child rights according to international law. The Sustainable Development Goals identify the practice as a major barrier to gender equality which must be addressed. Tackling child marriage lies at the nexus between protecting children and ensuring that they have access to justice.
It is widely accepted that marrying later is preferable. Later marriage affords women a potential host of benefits across the life-cycle and into the next generation, including a greater likelihood of completing a basic education, increased economic opportunity and autonomy, later and safer child birth, and improved quality of child-rearing.
In development contexts, intervening to reduce the incidence of child-marriage typically focuses on empowerment with a particular emphasis on enabling girls to stay in and complete their education.
However, addressing early marriage is more challenging in refugee contexts. Empowerment remains critical but is a more complex process as families seek security for their children, and, having fewer options, they may revert to harmful cultural practices. Together, these forces may encourage families to gravitate towards choosing child marriage.
However, such attempts to create more security for their children in these inherently insecure environments creates paradoxical and ultimately negative outcomes for the children affected. The question is: how can the practice of child marriage be effectively addressed in such challenging contexts?
“Identifying solutions to tackle child marriage requires a nuanced understanding of the complex interplay of drivers and social processes that increase the likelihood of families selecting it as a viable or least-worst course of action for their children.” - Tricia Young, CEO Tdh UK
The Terre des hommes Foundation recently co-hosted a conference on child marriage and forced migration in partnership with the British Academy: Child marriage in forced migration: social processes in-flux. The conference provided space to explore more deeply the impact of forced migration on the social processes underpinning child marriage.
The conference was intended to facilitate dialogue between researchers, policy makers, and practitioners, in an effort to identify and implement more effective responses. Topics ran the gamut from ethnographic research that explored the potential for engendering positive shifts in the social expectations of young Syrian men in Amman regarding their future partners, to papers outlining activist strategies for eradicating child marriage.
The conference provided significant evidence that displacement profoundly impacts gender and familial power dynamics, as well as reconfiguring agency and social practices.
Tdh’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Access to Justice Regional Coordinator, Marta Gil (left), presented an overview of Tdh’s Gender Justice programme, as well as results from research on customary justice systems. This initiative mobilises local stakeholders with a responsibility for customary justice. It equips them with the knowledge, skills, and capacities to ensure that customary justice systems are more gender and child sensitive in order to recalibrate social norms relating to girls and young women in displaced communities in the MENA region.
A key and contested issue to emerge during the conference related to the concept of agency:
How is the concept and practice of agency constructed and by whom?
How does forced migration impact girls’ agency and how do girls exercise agency?
Who gets to define which types of agency are legitimate?
Participants recognised that girls facing early marriage cannot simply be framed as ‘victims’ without agency. However, as one conference participant put it:
Can exercising choice within a very narrowly constrained range of options be considered a genuine choice at all?
The heated discussions about the concept of agency encouraged participants to consider the extent to which stereotypical tropes help or hinder our attempts to understand child marriage and enable or prevent us from devising contextually responsive and effective policies.
When early marriage is deemed the safe choice, perhaps the only seemingly-available choice—as conference findings suggested may be the case for some refugee communities—a lack of nuance in policy and practice will inevitably fail girls and their families.
A more grounded understanding of agency and of the complex social processes catalysed by forced migration should give all of us cause for thought.
Can this conversation enable us to develop more sophisticated conceptualisations of girls’ agency that both recognises the constraints these girls face and also how they operate within and resist those constraints, all while upholding a rights-based approach?
How can we frame these girls’ stories, and how can we depict child marriage in ways that do justice to the lived realities of girls and their families, and do not simply reproduce stereotypes and tropes that tend to emphasise victimhood?
Let’s keep this conversation going. We welcome your thoughts and collaboration.
Tdh addresses child marriage through research and advocacy, and through direct prevention and intervention. Click on the links below to learn more.
Research & Advocacy:
We gather, internationally, those with diverse interests, like at the BA conference.
We participate in the MENA Regional Accountability Framework to end child marriage.
Prevention & Intervention:
We work alongside religious leaders, speaking to families of the harm of early marriage.
We arm young women with knowledge and support families’ income-generating activities.
Photo credits: ©Tdh