The Invisible Majority: Married Girls in the Somali Refugee Camps
BY TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 27 August 2012
by Ashley Lackovich-van Gorp – TRANSCEND Media Service
Marriage does not turn a 12-year-old girl into a woman. The 2003 World Health Organization, United Nations Population Fund and Population Council report, “Married Adolescents: An Overview,” reveals that in comparison with unmarried peers, married girls have less education, less mobility, less exposure to the media and less access to social networks and basic services (25-34). In comparison with married women they have less household and economic power, are at greater risk for gender-based violence and face increased reproductive health risks (34). According to the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF) “2012 State of the World’s Children Report,”24% of girls in Sub-Saharan African are married. Despite these vulnerabilities, the vast majority of humanitarian relief and development efforts render these girls invisible. Most programs lump these adolescents together with women due to their marital status, and implementing staff avoid controversy by selecting not to use pictures of baby-faced girls participating in adult programs in their promotional materials. International relief organizations are not in the position to advocate against child marriage, but they are in the position to offer support to these girls as they struggle to navigate the power structures and complex hierarchies of the adult world.
Somalia has a population of 7.5 million people and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that a quarter of the population has been displaced since January, 2011. Approximately 203,187 Somali refugees have received asylum in Ethiopia, with more than 156,000 of these living in camps along the southern border area of Ethiopia with Kenya and Somalia UNICEF estimates that 45% of Somali girls are married by age 18, indicating that a large percentage of adolescent girls in the camps are married. However, UNHCR protection officers and reports reveal that there are no programs for these girls.
Both the international community and the host country, Ethiopia, have clearly defined and condemned child marriage. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) defines 18 as the upper boundary of childhood, and child marriage is in direct violation of many international agreements, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979, article 16.1b), the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990, article XXI), the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriage (1962, article 1) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966, article 23). The Ethiopian Constitution defines marriage as voluntary (article 6) and fixes the minimum marriage age at 18 (article 7). Furthermore, if one or both spouses are under the authorized age, the marriage can be dissolved (article 31), and marriages that involve violent coercion are invalid (article 14).
A child marriage suddenly drops girls into a perilous new world. The World Health Organization reports that pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death of girls between ages 15-19 outside of the West, but yet married girls are under tremendous pressure to have children immediately. Girls who have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM) are at increased risk for complications during childbirth, and UNICEF reports that FGM prevalence in Somalia is 94%. Married girls are expected to take on household responsibilities in lieu of attending school. Girls married to men with multiple wives often find themselves at the bottom of a power structure and subject to psychological and physical abuse. In refugee camps, the vulnerabilities of married girls increase as they confront the trauma of displacement and seek to navigate an environment that fosters gender-based violence and health risks. The normal threats of rejecting a marriage, which range from shunning to honor-killing, are intensified by the stresses of living in the camps. UNHCR field officers in Ethiopia report that incidents of early marriage are common, and recent protection meetings revealed that refugees are traveling to and from camps to find and abduct child brides. Direct reports of coerced marriage, including sexual and physical assault and psychological coercion, have sparked investigations, but action does not extend beyond case management.
International relief and development has a colonial history and maintains disgraceful and discrediting imperial undertones; however, the field is challenged to reach ethical standards. The 1992 Code of Conduct for International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief mandates NGOs to “respect culture and custom” (commandment 5). Recognizing child marriage as a custom, the international organization does not have the right to condemn and prevent child marriage; however, these organizations are simultaneously “accountable to both those we seek to assist and those from whom we accept resources” (commandment 9). The implementing NGOs are charged with the task of approaching the United Nations and other donors with the needs of those living in the camps. The United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), for example, has a Humanitarian Response Fund (HRF) in Ethiopia that has already granted 28.4 million USDs to relief projects in 2012. While not exclusively reserved for the refugee camps, the HRF accepts unsolicited proposals every week. Save the Children, the organization with the child protection mandate that works in the refugee camps, has a consistent open opportunity to address the needs of married adolescents. According to UNHCR, despite their protection mandate, Save the Children has no programs for married girls. Recognizing the multifaceted needs of children in the camps, Save the Children is tasked with a tremendous responsibility. However, who is more vulnerable and needs more protection than a married, out-of-school, pregnant 16 year-old-refugee with no access to independent resources?
William Easterly writes in his book, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, that development plans are made and implemented “without the Western public realizing that those plans at the top are not connected to reality at the bottom” (17). While the international community recognizes the existence of married adolescents on a policy-level, the Western community that provides the majority of the funding is largely uninformed. In this case, even those working within international relief do not comprehend the vulnerabilities associated with child marriage. Awareness precedes action. This conversation, while difficult and controversial, must begin so that assistance can reach married girls. They will likely never regain their childhood, but with the correct community-based programming married girls will be able to lead lives of dignity and ensure that their daughters have a different destiny.
Ashley Lackovich-van Gorp, a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, is currently working as a consultant for program development and progressive gender programming in international relief and development. She holds an MA in interethnic relations and is pursuing a PhD in Leadership and Change from Antioch University.
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 3.0 United States License.