Life after marriage: an analysis of the experiences of conflict-affected young women who are married before the age of 18 in South Sudan and the Kurdistan region of Iraq – Iraq

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Few studies on early marriage actually study girls’ lives after marriage. This briefing paper examines the experiences of life after marriage of young women who married before the age of 18 in South Sudan and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). This article describes the wide range of personal experiences following early marriage. It also describes the intersection between education and early marriage; mental health and early marriage; protection issues in marriage; and family dynamics after marriage. The paper also sheds light on a subsample of participants who married between the ages of 12 and 14.

Key findings from the study include:

Some interviewees experienced extreme changes in their lives after their marriage, particularly with regard to personal freedoms and domestic procreation duties. For others, the changes after marriage were minimal. A number of respondents in South Sudan described fluid and ambiguous relationship states. The dynamics around dowry payments, cohabitation and cultural expectations influenced these uncertainties, which existed in reference to marriage, widowhood and divorce. The experience of physical violence within marriage was relatively common among study participants and occurred in both forced marriages and love marriages. Some respondents were able to leave such marriages, often with the help of their birth family, but many others were unable to leave abusive situations. Respondents experienced a wide range of mental health issues after early marriage, ranging from depression and regret to experiences of great happiness and well-being in their new life. Many respondents were unable or unable to continue their education after becoming pregnant or getting married, although many express a strong desire to complete their education. Those who continued generally received strong support from their birth and marital families. Family dynamics after marriage varied considerably among respondents. Sharing overcrowded and unsanitary housing with in-laws was often difficult, but some interviewees mentioned receiving support as young mothers from in-laws. Immigration and resettlement attempts and changing family expectations have also influenced family dynamics after marriage. One in five girls is married before the age of 18 globally, and this practice is likely to increase during crises, including conflict, displacement and COVID 19. While the negative impacts on the child bride, her family and eventual children are well documented, little is known about the needs, challenges, opportunities and constraints faced by young displaced women, including how early marriage takes place and how life unfolds after marriage. For example, the Feinstein International Center and Save the Children Denmark followed a cohort of displaced adolescent girls in South Sudan and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) aged 14 to 23 for a year and a half using methods holistic and participatory.

The sample included internally displaced South Sudanese in South Sudan, as well as Syrian refugees and displaced Yazidis in KRI. Research participants were single, married (as minors), divorced and widowed. Many girls in the cohort became pregnant when they were minors and/or have physical, psychological and intellectual disabilities.

The researchers conducted more than 600 interviews with more than 100 cohort members. This data will inform briefing materials on six topics:

early pregnancy and sexual and reproductive health decision-making regarding the practice of early marriage life after early marriage the special situation of young divorced and widowed women mental health and psychological support, displacement and early marriage education, displacement and early marriage – recommendations sectoral and concrete for humanitarian organizations seeking to prevent and respond to early marriage in fragile settings.

This project has received support from Save the Children Denmark, DANIDA, Tufts University and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 786064.

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