A Look at Life After Early Marriage and Displacement

Feinstein International Center researchers are working to support Syrian and Yazidi women who were both married early and displaced due to conflict.

Kimberly Howe, F07, F12, and Elizabeth Stites, F01, F13, research directors at the Feinstein International Center at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, have been studying early, or child, marriage for years, but their most recent research— including workshops among young women and girls in refugee and internal displacement camps in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI)—revealed complex challenges that surprised and sometimes shocked them.

The workshop attendees were among the participants in a larger 18-to-24 month study called Leave No One Behind (LNOB), a joint effort of Feinstein’s research on Early Marriage in Conflict and Displacement and  Save the Children Denmark. Many of the 35 workshop attendees were married (mostly as minors), widowed, or divorced. Some had resisted pressure to marry and remained single. All were either Syrian or Yazidi (a marginalized Kurdish-speaking group against which ISIS essentially waged genocide).

The workshops’ goal was to support female youth in identifying the main issues they face, coping strategies they rely on, and potential solutions to the problems. The four-hour workshops were unusual in bringing displaced women of like marital status and ethnicity together face-to-face to share difficult experiences and explore possible ways to make things better. 

Early marriage is believed to increase during conflict and humanitarian crises, but evidence is incomplete. This evidence gap, combined with a long-standing interest in female youth going back to her pre-Tufts career as a psychotherapist, intrigued Howe. Her expertise complemented that of Stites, who in 2002 had begun studying livelihood strategies among households in Afghanistan, where young girls were sometimes offered in marriage to pay moneylenders or secure protection from militia. Essential to their ground-breaking work were local researchers Khalat Ahmed Hammada and Shilan Sulaiman.

Potential interventions emerging from the KRI workshops stressed culturally acceptable support strategies ranging from simply posting information about topics like C-section care and post-partum depression on social media to professionally led in-person support sessions. The research team recommended starting with small pilot interventions that could be expanded if shown to be effective and practical.

Tufts Now spoke with Howe and Stites about insights gained from the workshops and the tremendous challenges surrounding early marriage.

Tufts Now: What findings from the workshops stand out?

Kimberly Howe: The first thing is that participants don’t fit the victim narrative that is often given to female youth living in displacement. Often when we talk about early marriage, we see them as victims of their families, their culture, their religion. There absolutely are cases of terrible abuse, but I was struck by just how capable these women are of explaining where they have choice, where they don’t have choice, where they can exercise problem-solving, where they’re able to make decisions, where they’re not, and how capable they are of generating solutions to problems. This goes against the common view that experts know best. Our research shows if we engage with female youth, we can learn and design interventions that might have meaningful impact.

Elizabeth Stites: I agree this isn’t a victimhood narrative, but at the same time many problems are due to intractable systemic and structural issues: Extreme gender discrimination that manifests as lack of freedom of movement, lack of economic autonomy, and lack of information, as well as bullying, shaming, and ostracizing.

How do displacement and early marriage intersect?

Stites: It depends. Displacement may increase early marriage. Among the Syrian refugees, for example, there were girls who married in order to be part of an existing family because their parents had to move from Iraq and the girls couldn’t go with them. But among the Yazidis, who by custom often marry at 12 or 13, displacement can bring exposure to new practices, such as girls being able to go to school for the first time, which may lead to fewer early marriages. We hope further study can sort out the many variables and complexities.

Howe: One striking thing is the psychological toll resulting from conflict-related trauma. We found the average number of types of traumas experienced by these girls was 14, and they may have experienced repeated instances of the same types of trauma. There’s a lot of sexual harassment in the camps, particularly of unmarried girls. They sometimes told us, “I’m depressed, I have no future. Maybe marriage will help.” It’s super nuanced, which makes it hard to come up with a single headline, although that is what the humanitarian community wants.

Were there other surprises?

Howe: As part of the workshops, Liz and I talked first with those who had married as children. Their stories of gender inequality, abuse from families, and feeling powerless to work or continue education were quite depressing. We imagined that the stories of the unmarried girls, who had managed to buck the pressure to marry, would be a lot more positive.  Instead, we found their lives were equally difficult for different reasons. They were often seen as pariahs and burdens on their family. Those of every marital status faced a lot of problems just because they were female.

Your report notes that many of the women said that the workshops and LNOB study themselves had positive impacts. Does this point to some avenues for help and support?

Stites: That was a really powerful takeaway.  One young woman said, “When you used to call me for the study, each call kept me going for a week.” I often expected the study participants to say “Stop, I’m done, I don’t want to relive this” when we set up regular calls. But I didn’t have a single dropout. I think one of the reasons was how helpful it was just having somebody to talk with.

Howe: The participants asked for a lot of things related to social connection to alleviate their situations, whether being overwhelmed as a new mother or being ostracized after divorce. The approach Liz and I have taken is to say, okay, what space can these women operate in safely and how can we support them? As researchers, we need to present their voices accurately and empirically to the humanitarian community.

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