Changing the pattern: How tailoring is helping young refugees say “no” to child marriage

Welcome to this bustling refugee camp in the heart of Malawi.

Arriving here in search of refuge from the violence and conflicts in Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), asylum seekers are greeted by an overwhelming non-stop noise from a camp that is bursting at the seams.

This sprawling make-shift city of mud-brick houses and red-dirt streets sits amongst picturesque hills just 25 miles from the Malawian capital, Lilongwe. Originally meant to provide shelter for just 14,000 refugees there are now over 40,000 people living here – with many more arriving each month.

The ever-expanding population in the refugee camp means that accommodation, water, food and health care supplies are increasingly scarce. Which in turn makes navigating daily life extremely tough as the pressures of not having enough can lead to making potentially harmful decisions in order to survive.

Which is why, amongst the overcrowded chaos, there are hundreds of refugee girls for whom child marriage can seem like the only way to escape the violence and poverty that thrive inside the camp.

Despite being illegal in Malawi, child marriage is on the rise in humanitarian settings like this one. Displaced from their homes and countries, girls often lose their protection systems, such as family, friends and school, and find themselves trying to adapt to a precarious new environment with little to no access to basic services and money.

A lack of support and resources leads to a lack of options. Which, when combined with deeply entrenched gender inequality, means that girls are presented with sex work or marriage as ways to survive camp life. Faced with these two options, getting married can appear to be the safer ‘choice’.

This was exactly the position Rachel* found herself in when she and her younger siblings first arrived at the camp.

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