Vulnerability, Child Marriages and the Boxing Day Tsunami – by Rebecca Richards

Tsunami Applied Example


Every minute, 23 underage girls are married [1]. While child marriages – i.e. those involving children under the age of 18 – apply to both genders, it is disproportionately girls who are forced  into marriage [2]. The issue of child marriage is a global one– not isolated to country, setting, or culture. In the United States, for example, more than 200,000 children were married between 2000 and 2015 (25 states don’t have laws regulating the minimum age of marriage) [3], while in Niger, 78% of girls are married by the age of 18 [4]. Furthermore, different societal structures may create different ‘types’ of child marriages: the Afghan practice of using child marriage as a way to settle family disputes – baad – [5] is a not the same as the illegal bride kidnappings – kyz ala kachuu – that can occur in rural Kyrgyzstan [6].

Given that children cannot provide informed consent, all child marriages are considered to be a form of forced marriage where the children’s rights are violated [7] and their health is put at risk.That being said, it is important to note that ‘force’ is a normative term that doesn’t adequately capture the nuances of how those motivated to marry their child perceive the situation. Families might, for example, consider marrying off their young female relatives to be fully justified.

In times of conflict, disaster, and humanitarian crises, the number of child marriages often rises significantly from their peace-time levels. Such events often exacerbate existing inequalities – social, gender, economic, and political – that already exist in societies. Economic hardships or the death of a male family member – who many girls rely on for safety and security – can lead to a lack of protection for female children, therewith magnifying the social processes and the need for male chaperoning that underlie child marriages. As such, child marriages often increase following traumatic events that erode the social fabric and lead to people’s attempts to re-establish order, security, and a sense of familiarity [8] [9]. Up to 41% of underage, displaced Syrian girls in Lebanese refugee camps, for example, were married following the outbreak of the civil war – a large increase from the 13% of girls who were pushed into marriage before the conflict began [10].

The occurrence of female child marriages can be traced back the vulnerabilities and inequalities that women and girls face in various contexts. While ‘vulnerability’ is a contested term – both in terms of its definition and its usefulness – it emerges consistently in the emergency literature and serves as a useful tool for examining social processes and structures that result in inequalities.


While, as far as I am aware, no specific vulnerability framework for examining child marriage exists, McKenzie, Rogers & Dodds developed a taxonomy of vulnerability that is useful for our purposes and distinguishes between:

  1. Inherent Vulnerabilities that are intrinsic to the human condition (e.g. death), but may vary with age and gender.
  2. Situational Vulnerabilities that are context specific and caused or exacerbate by the political, structural, and personal circumstances of individuals or groups.
  3. The particularly troubling Pathogenic Vulnerabilities that greatly undermine people’s autonomy as a result from morally dysfunctional relationships or policies, or –paradoxically – from responses that intended to reduce vulnerabilities but end up exacerbating them [11]. 

Let’s now take a closer look at how one humanitarian crisis in particular – the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami – exacerbated these existing vulnerabilities and therewith resulted in an increase of child marriages.


The Boxing Day Tsunami killed more than 250,000 people across 15 countries. Because of a lack of disaster planning and preparedness, homes, livelihoods, and public infrastructure were widely destroyed in affected areas. Anecdotal reports* soon emerged of an increase in sexual assaults, rapes and human trafficking, as well a surge of older men in India, Sri Lanka, and Aceh – many of them so called ‘tsunami widowers’ – marrying underage girls [9] [12]. This was often as a result of parents attempting to prevent sexual assault outside of marriage. While sexual activity within such marriages are not consensual either, many parents were focussed on preventing the shame that non-marital rape or sexual assault brings upon families.

Vulnerability & Child Marriages Graph

Some post-tsunami child marriages are examples of situational vulnerabilities. Gender and structural inequalities were deepened by the disaster as communities faced material and labour losses and increased economic hardships. In some tsunami-affected societies, girls were vulnerable to underage marriage pre-disaster due to cultural norms and structural circumstances. Post-tsunami, some families saw child marriages as a strategy to cope in a context  with a shortage of relevant aid organisations, support networks, and welfare systems. Reports emerged that families compelled their young daughters to marry older men in order to have fewer mouths to feed, for girls to replace the lost labour and sexual services of perished women, and as a way for families to secure the material resources they needed for survival [9] [12]. In other words, the context specific circumstances of girls put them in a position where child marriage was seen as a way to prevent family destitution.

The increased rates of sexual assault, rape, and human trafficking following the tsunami [8] compelled many families to take steps to reduce the risk of family dishonour and the economic hardships that both the families and the girls themselves were likely to face. I would argue that child marriages in these contexts constitute a case of pathogenic vulnerability: that is, the protective measures taken by families paradoxically end up increasing the vulnerabilities these young girls face once they enter into marriage.

Firstly, rates of intimate partner violence, sexual assault and rape are significantly higher in child marriages than in marriages where the bride is 18 years or older [13]. Secondly, research shows that married girls are even less likely to complete formal education than their unmarried counterparts (reports also show that girls who drop out of school are also more likely to enter into underage marriages). As a result, married underage girls are even less likely to enter into employment than they otherwise would be, are therefore more likely to face long-term economic hardships, and their future ability to leave the marriage is reduced even further [14].

As global health emergencies exacerbate health and social inequalities, young girls continue to live in circumstances where must decisions are made for and forced upon them. They are pushed into emotional, physical, and sexual adult roles [15].

Even where the motivation for forcing children into marriage is for the livelihood and protection of both their families and the girls themselves, the concept of pathogenic vulnerability usefully illustrates how vulnerabilities can be compounded and act against the wellbeing and safety of young girls and women in the context of emergencies and disasters.

While McKenzie, Rogers & Dodds’ taxonomy is helpful in theoretically examining the vulnerabilities that girls in child marriages faced following the Boxing Day Tsunami, the lived experiences of both the girls themselves and their families are far more complex. This case study was an attempt at illustrating the complexity of the concept of vulnerability as an important and relevant framework. Yet it is still a potentially problematic one, especially as we do not have a specific vulnerability framework for child marriages.


*Exact data is scarce – gathering information on sexual assault and child marriage is a sensitive issue at the best of times, but is even more ethically fraught in the aftermath of disasters.


[1] Girls Not Brides, ‘About Child Marriage’, Girls Not Brides.

[2] UNICEF (2013), ‘Child Marriages: 39,000 Every Day’, UNICEF. 

[3] Ferguson (20180, ‘What You Need to Know about Child Marriage in the US‘, Forbes. 

[4] UNICEF (2019), ‘Child Marriage‘, UNICEF DATA. 

[5] Girls Not Brides, ‘Afghanistan‘, Girls Not Brides. 

[6] Hughes (2013), ‘Bride Kidnapping and Land Rights in Rural Kyrgyzstan‘, Girls Not Brides. 

[7] OHCHR, ‘Child, early and forced marriage, including in humanitarian settings,’ OHCHR. 

[8] Pittaway, Bartolomei & Rees (2007), ‘Gendered dimensions of the 2004 tsunami and a potential social work response in post-disaster situations’, International Social Work, 50(3), 307-319.

[9] Felton-Biermann (2006), ‘Gender and Natural Disaster: Sexualized violence and the tsunami’, Development, 49(3), 82.

[10] Bailey-King (2018), ‘Child Marriage and the Syrian Conflict: 7 Things You Need to Know,’ Girls Not Brides.

[11] McKenzie, Rogers & Dodds (2014), Vulnerability: New Essays in Ethics and Feminist Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press).

[12] Fisher (2010), ‘Violence Against Women and Natural Disasters: Findings From Post-Tsunami Sri Lanka’, Violence Against Women, 16(8), 902 – 918.

[13] Girls Not Brides, ‘Violence Against Girls,’ Girls Not Brides.

[14] Girls Not Brides, ‘Education,’ Girls Not Brides.

[15] Girls Not Brides, ‘Health‘, Girls Not Brides.

Rebecca Richards is a Graduate Research Assistant at the University of Edinburgh.

Image by WikiImages on Pixabay