KGHRI scientists address global child marriage crisis

News / Education / Women’s Health / Children’s Health / Research
By Queen's/KGHRI

Dr. Susan Bartels, a global health specialist at the KGH Research Institute, recently returned from Lebanon where she and a team are working to address a world health crisis – child marriage.

The flow of Syrian refugees into countries including Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon has created a dangerous scenario of adult men taking child brides. The World Health Organization says child marriage is an “appalling violation of human rights and robs girls of their education, health, and long-term prospects.”

Dr. Bartels’ project, Making Sense of Child Marriage Among Syrian Refugee Girls, received $150,000 from the World Bank Group and the Sexual Violence Research Initiative to fund the first portion of the project.

“In these countries, it’s more culturally acceptable for young girls to marry and, with the influx of Syrian refugees to these countries, the age of the girls at the time of marriage is dropping,” says Dr. Bartels, who is also an ER physician in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Queen’s University. “Many of these countries don’t have a legal age for marriage.”

Each year, 15 million girls are married before the age of 18. Unless action is taken, it is estimated the global number of child brides will reach 1.2 billion girls by 2050 as reported by girlsnotbrides.org. Girls married young are more vulnerable to intimate partner violence and sexual abuse, and complications of pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death in these young women (ages 15 to 19). They are also usually unable to continue their formal education, thus limiting their literacy and their future earning potential.

Dr. Bartels travelled to Lebanon in May with KGHRI colleague Colleen Davison (Public Health) and Nour Bakhache (MPH’17) to start the project and enlisted the help of SenseMaker to collect the data. SenseMaker is narrative-based research methodology that captures and analyzes a large quantity of stories. Telling stories about personal experiences, as opposed to answering a survey for example, allowed the participants to convey complex ideas in a simple manner.

Using Lebanese and Syrian interviewers, the team interviewed married girls under 18, unmarried girls, community leaders, Syrian mothers and fathers, men who have taken a child bride and unmarried men. The interviews were completely anonymous.

After recording 1,425 stories in six weeks, three common threads emerged.

“The number one issue for the Syrian girls is security,” explains Dr. Bartels. “The second issue or barrier is a lack of education, and money is the third issue. These are the common threads that often lead to child marriage. For example, a family may marry off a young daughter because they have no money to feed her. Or they are threatened to give up a young daughter to marriage.”

For the second part of the project, Dr. Bartels will head back to Lebanon in the new year to discuss the findings at the community level. Working with the ABAAD Resource Centre for Gender Equality, Dr. Bartels will hold focus groups to engage the communities and to see if work can be started on a solution to the problem of child marriage. She is hopeful her findings will be useful for other research programs in the Middle East.