What drives child marriage in the Rohingya refugee camps?

Prolonged displacement and deprivation often creates a situation that fuels child marriage and gender-based violence. Similar to other communities in South Asia, child marriage among Rohingya people was a widespread traditional practice back in Myanmar. However, many Rohingya say marriage practices among them were regulated by Burmese military in Myanmar and prevented many from marrying before 18. But since their displacement, in the refugee camps in Ukhiya and Teknaf, due to many coercive circumstantial factors, it has increased. And during pandemic, child marriage soared when humanitarian activities to prevent child marriage were forced to stop as a means to limit travel within and outside the camps.

The harmful effects of child or early marriage are easy to understand. It robs children, and especially girls, of their education, childhood and undermines their prospects and potential. It also puts them at risk of facing physical and sexual violence. In 2017, the UN adopted a Human Rights Council Resolution on child marriage in humanitarian settings that recognises child marriage as a violation of human rights in addition to already being widely considered a form of gender-based violence.

Positive alternatives to child marriage such as engaging in any meaningful activities are very limited or nonexistent, the only exception being the opportunity to attend learning centers where kids receive only very basic and informal schooling

Working as a humanitarian worker assisting children, I’ve seen that most girls and boys who marry at an early age suffer from severe mental health issues. Adolescent girls are worst affected in child marriage. I have seen boys become frustrated unable to access jobs and provide for their families, or struggle with addiction and alcohol use and abuse their spouses. Since the Covid situation has largely improved, Rohingya refugees have resumed their activities to raise awareness about the harmful impacts of child marriage in hopes of bringing an end to this practice in their community. Despite these efforts, child marriage is still on the rise. So we must ask ourselves, if a lack of understanding is not the reason these practices continue, then what are the reasons driving child marriage to rise in the camps?

The reasons why child marriage is on the rise in the Rohingya camps is similar to other communities around the world. All of the proven factors that cause child marriage are present in the Rohingya camps: lack of formal education, lack of activities and job opportunities, lack of security, inadequate legal protections, breakdown of social structures, limited privacy and having to share a small shelter with all family members, polygamy, gender inequalities, cultural and religious norms regarding the timing of marriage, low status of women, women and child headed families, fear of sexual abuse and pregnancy outside of marriage, low life expectancy. In some cases, food rations also work as a key motivating factor in child marriages because boys do not need to worry about feeding their wives.

Positive alternatives to child marriage such as engaging in any meaningful activities are very limited or nonexistent, the only exception being the opportunity to attend learning centers where kids receive only very basic and informal schooling. Some young women have been lucky to have volunteer jobs in the NGOs. There are many young women whose husbands have left them to go to Malaysia, and whose whereabouts are unknown or have married another girl. Those women are looking for jobs to survive but opportunities are decreasing due to declining international assistance.

To stop child marriage in a society, a comprehensive approach is needed. Such an approach would include a legal framework, law enforcement, access to quality and formal education up to Grade 12, access to employment. In my work, the only thing in our control is trying to raise awareness on child marriage, but I have seen that this alone does not work, and neither does trying to stop this practice by force. What is needed are meaningful alternatives through education, learning technical skills, and work opportunities, but to make these changes, we need our government’s support.

Humanitarian actors are doing as much as they can to prevent and stop child marriages and the likes in the camps. For more than three years now, I have been working as a frontline humanitarian worker preventing and responding to child marriage. When we try and stop a child marriage from happening, sometimes we feel helpless because we cannot offer them anything better to pursue. Yes, it is important to have people understand why child labour and early marriage are harmful practices. But people do not leave something bad, if they are not offered something better instead.

Among the Rohingya people, there are some widely believed stereotypes that women have to be physically beaten to be disciplined, and girls become old at 20, and after 20 they won’t get marriage proposals. Their belief is that girls get ready for marriage since their menstruation cycle starts which often happens at the age of 10-13.

Apart from that, one of the reasons child marriage and violence towards women are increasing in the camps is the absence of systematic marriage and divorce registration. It is making the situation worse for the women in the camps. Without systematic and compulsory marriage registration, the ages of spouses is not verified and child marriages are more likely to happen and remain unnoticed. And marriages that are not properly registered makes women vulnerable to abuse, violence and exploitation.

In the camps, there are no Kazi offices to register marriages and divorces. Camp in Charge (CiC) offices are given responsibility to maintain records of marriages and divorces of refugees. But in practice, refugees do not go to register marriages and divorces to CiC offices as most marriages are child marriages which they know will not be approved by CiC office. Given the camps I work in, I have seen most marriages happened through something they call Shamajik Kamin, an agreement made by the parties socially on a 50, 100 or 200 taka stamp paper. It involves no authorising or documenting agency. And later when spouses reach 18, they sometimes get it registered at CiC office. In some cases, even no document is done; just the religious obligations are maintained.

I don’t wonder seeing boys as old as 13, 14 and 15 are marrying girls of the same age in the camps because there is hardly any privacy parents can maintain in the tiny huts they live in and any meaningful activities they can pursue. Also there are no such things as finishing school and going for higher studies, building a career and making a home in the camps, so the only way forward for many boys and girls is to get married and start a family but that does not often go well and ends up in separation, violence and abuse.

Jakara Akter, a development professional from Cox’s Bazar who has been working with Rohingya refugees for more than 10 years, says that like Rohingya camps, child marriage is still a big problem in Cox’s Bazar but we have made some progress because of girl’s education and socio-economic development. She also said that to the Rohingya parents, girls without access to education are burden which they want to get rid of as early possible.

Child marriage and child labour are not just concerns that Rohingya children are going through, these are yet some of the prevailing child protection concerns in most of the South Asian countries including Bangladesh. Though Bangladesh had achieved remarkable progress in poverty reduction and girls’ education and empowerment but Covid pandemic has made the scenario worsening across the country. According to UNICEF, Bangladesh has the highest prevalence of child marriage in South Asia with half of the girls being married before the age of 18 year. A survey conducted last year by Manusher Jonno Foundation revealed that almost 14000 underage marriages took place across the one-third of the country during the first six months of lockdown.

In a statement released by UN on 23 May says that the number of people forced to flee their homes has reached 100 million worldwide. It is also being described by UN as a staggering record. The fifth year is running since Rohingyas were forced to flee their homes in Myanmar and crammed into the camps in Cox’s Bazar. Now it is on the way to be a forgotten crisis in the world. There is no way we could ensure peace in the camps if we don’t take long-term plans for the refugees and younger generations of Rohingyas are not meaningfully engaged.

* Parvez Uddin Chowdhury is a humanitarian worker and independent researcher with focus on child protection and education in emergency. Email: [email protected]