Circumscribed Lives: Divorced, Divorced and Widowed Female Youth in South Sudan and the Kurdish Region of Iraq – South Sudan

Circumscribed Lives: Divorced, Divorced and Widowed Female Youth in South Sudan and the Kurdish Region of Iraq – South Sudan

Kimberly Howe, Elizabeth Stites, Meg Moran, Anastasia Marshak, Khalat Ahmed Hammada, Shilan Sulaiman, Nyachar Lony and Tabitha Nyaleel Maguek

Very little is known about the experiences of female youth who marry under the age of 18 and later become divorced, divorced or widowed. This research project follows the lives of such young people displaced by conflicts in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and South Sudan. This briefing paper highlights the unique vulnerabilities and challenges facing separated, divorced and widowed female youth. These include serious mental health problems, economic deprivation and social stigma and isolation. In addition, female youths who are mothers often lose custody of their children if they are divorced or widowed. This causes profound negative psychosocial consequences. Despite these unique hardships, humanitarian programs rarely target these special categories of female youth.

The main findings of this study are:

  • Severe domestic violence was the leading cause of divorce in both countries. In South Sudan, an additional reason for divorce is failure to pay dowry.

  • In both countries, young women are seen as responsible for the failure of their marriages, regardless of the cause, leading to rifts with their birth family and social stigma.

  • Mothers who are separated from or separated from their husbands can expect to lose custody of their children in either country. Such loss causes profound and long-lasting negative psychological consequences.

  • In both countries, widows and their children face serious economic insecurity, including difficulties in meeting their children’s basic needs.

  • Widows in South Sudan were “inherited” by their husband’s brothers to bear children for her in-laws. They had little to no choice in this process.

  • In the KRI, widows faced curtailment of their freedoms and became the target of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse by family, community and personnel of humanitarian organizations and governments.

Globally, one in five girls under the age of 18 is married, 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 any children are well documented, there is little Known about the needs, challenges, opportunities and limitations faced by female youth in displacement, including how early marriage develops and how lives unfold after marriage. As such, the Feinstein International Center together with 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 1.5 years using holistic, participatory methods. .

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

The researchers conducted more than 600 interviews with more than 100 members of the cohort. This data will provide information on briefing documents on six topics:

  • early pregnancy and sexual and reproductive health

  • decision making around the practice of early marriage

  • life after early marriage

  • the special situation of divorced and widowed female youths

  • mental health and psychological support, displacement and early marriage

  • education, displacement and early marriage

Each document provides cross-sectoral, concrete recommendations for humanitarian organizations seeking to prevent and address early marriages in fragile environments.


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