The global refugee crisis triggered by the Syrian war and other conflicts poses a major challenge for governments around the world. Behind the scenes, though, it is exacerbating another, less visible, but equally disturbing global phenomenon: a dramatic increase in child marriage.

When families find themselves in dire straits because of war or natural disaster – without a home or income, with worries about security and an uncertain future – many choose to marry off their daughters, often to older men. Parents may believe this is the only way they can protect and provide for these young girls. The impact, however, can be devastating. Child brides are often affected by domestic violence and face overwhelming pressure to have children when they themselves are still children. Most of them are also denied education, even though this is a well-established route out of poverty.

In their daughters’ interests

With 13% of girls married by age 18, pre-war Syria was not one of the hotspot countries for child marriage. Yet, in the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, the rates seem to have doubled. In Bangladesh, the permanent threat of flooding and erosion has a similar effect. Child marriage rates increase in those areas where houses are at risk of being washed away. The parents’ justification is that if their home is destroyed, it will be harder to find a suitable huband for their daughters so it is better to marry them off as soon as possible. In Nepal, too, signs indicate that families, destitute after the earthquake earlier this year, are increasingly marrying off their young daughters. In the majority of these cases the parents believe they are acting in their daughters’ interests. In reality, it’s just the reverse.mabel-van-oranje-child-marriage (1)Some 720 million women around the world have been married as girls – their future and aspirations brought to an abrupt standstill. Unless we act now, that number will soar to 1.2 billion by 2050.

Of course, not all child marriages are a consequence of humanitarian crises or natural disasters. Child marriage happens across countries, continents, cultures and religions. Many young girls are married off simply because of tradition dating back generations. In many cases, the security of the girl, the honour of the family and economic hardship also play a role.

Ultimately, child marriage is driven by a lack of equality between men and women. It happens because girls are deemed second-class citizens or a commodity to be bought or sold. Too often, girls are seen as a burden with little status and few prospects; they are given no say in major decisions that affect their lives, such as when or whom to marry.

Ending child marriage would not only help to close the gender gap, it would also contribute to tackling global poverty and improving the well-being of communities, given that ending child marriage is closely linked to reducing maternal and infant mortality, and increasing access to education.

A step in the right direction

For too long, child marriage was a taboo, and the 15 million young girls who are married every year were invisible. Last month in New York, the world’s leaders committed for the first time to a target to end child marriage by 2030 as part of the Global Goals for Sustainable Development. This is a significant acknowledgement of the problem and a step in the right direction. We now need to turn the lofty promises into action.

Countries where child marriage is prevalent must develop, implement and fund policies that will truly end child marriage within a generation. Dialogue and sensitization should take place in communities where child marriage is the social norm. Girls need to be empowered and to learn that they have rights and real options. Parents and local leaders must understand the negative consequences of this harmful practice for the girls and their community as a whole. Viable and acceptable alternatives must be created. For example, education should be available and safely accessible to all adolescent girls, including those who have escaped war and violence. Girls who go to school marry later – it’s a well-documented fact. In addition, economic support and incentives must be put in place to aid those girls and families who turn their back on child marriage.

Ending child marriage is an ambitious goal – and change won’t come quickly. But it is possible, in one generation. We know which interventions work. These solutions must now be scaled to reach every girl at risk. We also know that girls who marry after 18 will see to it that their daughters won’t become child brides. And, most importantly, we know that a world without child marriage is a world in which we all – boys and girls, men and women – will be healthier, better educated, more prosperous and more equal.

The Summit on the Global Agenda 2015 takes place in Abu Dhabi from 25-27 October

Author: Mabel van Oranje is the initiator and chair of Girls Not Brides: the Global Partnership to End Child Marriage. She is also a 2005 WEF Young Global Leader.

Image: Syrian refugee girl sits in a bus at a temporary registration camp, October 21, 2015. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis