There are big differences around the world regarding marriage rates for children under 18. According to a report from advocacy organization Girls Not Brides, countries with high rates of child marriage tend to be poor and unstable, or those that are currently affected by major humanitarian crises

But why do parents in desperate situations choose to marry off their children, and what are the consequences for the children who are being married off? Read on for some of the major points from the Girls Not Brides report.

How many displaced children under the age of 18 get married?

No one knows exactly. However, it is estimated that every year around the world some 12 million girls under the age of 18 get married, and the risk of child marriage increases during conflict and humanitarian disasters.

Before the civil war in Syria, about 13% of girls were married before they turned 18. After the civil war, that number has nearly tripled among Syrian refugees in neighboring countries. In Jordan and Lebanon, more than one in three Syrian refugee girls gets married before the age of 18.

In conflict- and hunger-plagued Yemen, which is suffering one of the world’s most severe humanitarian disasters, around two out of every three girls gets married before their 18th birthday.

Why do parents choose to marry off their children at such an early age?

Reasons vary. Many families lose almost everything when they have to flee. Not just their homes and their things, but also their livelihood. As a result, many refugees live in extreme poverty, which makes it difficult to obtain food and other basic necessities. By marrying off a child, there is one less person in the family needing support, and the hope that the child can find a better life by marrying into a more prosperous family.

Another reason is that refugees face a heightened risk of violence, rape, and other assaults - especially single girls and women. Therefore, some parents see child marriage as a way to protect their child from the risks inherent to life in displacement.

Finally, there are also examples of parents being forced to marry off their children. In Somalia, for example, there are cases of militant groups threatening to kill the entire family if their parents refuse to marry off their daughters.

16-year-old Waed from Syria saw marriage as her only way forward

Waed had to flee the war in Syria and has not been to school since she was 14. Living in a refugee camp in Jordan, she did not feel she had any future prospects other than getting married and starting a family.

What are the consequences of getting married before the age of 18?

Child marriages have many negative consequences. Young girls are neither physically nor mentally ready to be wives and mothers, and they are at increased risk of complications during pregnancy and childbirth. In addition, many young girls have their freedom restricted when they get married, becoming socially isolated and starved of opportunities to interact with other children of their own age. They rarely have the opportunity to go to school or get an education, and their financial opportunities are very limited. Often child brides feel that they have no options, and no prospect of an exciting future.

Further, many early marriages are relatively short-lived, and divorced young girls with children are very vulnerable and often exposed to prejudice and humiliation, which negatively affects them both socially and mentally.

What are we doing to help refugee children avoid child marriage?

Child marriage is often a solution borne out of desperation, chosen by desperate parents in a very difficult situation. That is why we do everything we can to ensure that refugee families can lead as dignified and as good lives as possible. The more stability the families have, the lower the risk of parents choosing desperate solutions such as child marriage.

Specifically, we distribute emergency aid, including basic necessities and cash support, to vulnerable refugees. And we help refugee parents get to work through vocational training and entrepreneurship courses and support. We also support refugee children by educating them about their rights, the importance of education, and the consequences of child marriages, child labor, and similar issues.

We also operate Child Friendly Spaces, where refugee children can play, relax, and momentarily escape from their everyday hardships. Here they will meet our staff, who are trained to listen to the children’s needs and advise them on difficult issues and situations.

Read the "Child Marriage in Humanitarian Contexts" thematic brief