Early Marriage in Palestine

Palestine has a population of 4.8 million and nearly half are children (UNICEF, 2019). There are 2.88 million people living in the West Bank and 1.9 million in Gaza (Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics [PCBS], 2018). The situation in Palestine is dire; the persistent military occupation and political instability have led to widespread poverty with more than half of Palestinian families living below the poverty line (UNICEF-Humanitarian Action for Children [HAC], 2019). The highest rates of poverty are found in Hebron and Jericho, communities in Area C, and isolated Bedouin communities (UNICEF, 2018). Unemployment in the West Bank remains high at 15% and nearly 47% in Gaza (World Bank, 2019). For women, unemployment is nearly 50% (International Labour Organization [ILO], 2018). Palestine also experiences high rates of gender based violence (GBV), especially domestic violence which is “widespread, normalized, and exacerbated by the occupation” (United Nations Population Fund [UNFPA], 2017).

In Palestine, the most recent, statistically sound, and representative data on child marriage is from the 2014 Palestinian Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) in partnership with the UNICEF and UNFPA, which found that 15% of girls between 20 and 24 are married before the age of 18 and 1% are married before the age of 15 (PCBS, 2015). However this data can be misleading as some areas in Palestine have higher rates of child marriage such as Gaza, East Jerusalem, and Area C (UNFPA, 2016 & UNFPA, 2017). The MICS survey also found that there are higher rates of early marriage in urban and camp areas rather than rural areas which in inconsistent with global child marriage trends (PCBS, 2015). This could be due to the inability to account for unregistered and informal marriages.

A 2019 Area C survey conducted by OXFAM and University of Birzeit found that 31% of surveyed women had been married before the age of 18, “with no notable decline in rates of early marriage among younger women” (OXFAM, 2019). The survey also found the highest rates of child marriage in encampments (40%) and in the Jordan Valley (38%)—areas that also experience the most obstacles to education (OXFAM, 2019). In addition to higher rates of early marriage, the Jordan Valley, south West Bank, and the encampments also have larger families and higher rates of polygamous marriage. According to the report, these findings suggest that “households in Area C, especially the most deprived communities, have been locked out of many of the socio-economic and related demographic transitions that have taken place in the wider West Bank over the past two decades” (OXFAM, 2019).

However, the 2018 United States State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for the West Bank and Gaza noted “child marriage did not appear to be widespread in the West Bank and Gaza, according to NGOs and the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling (WCLAC)” (U.S. State Department, 2018). This is concerning as the 2018 WCLAC Annual Report specifically contradicts this stating, “child marriage still remains a significant problem, especially in the West Bank” (WCLAC, 2018).

While child marriage rates in Palestine are not necessarily high when compared to the region or the rest of the world, it is still an unfortunate reality for many young girls—one that will perpetuate long-term, cyclical poverty in a place already plagued by abject instability. The variance and contradictory reports on child marriage are harmful and ultimately make it more difficult to secure funding for future research and programming to help those most vulnerable to the practice.

It is also important to note how child marriage prevalence is reported. Generally it is measured as the percentage of 20-24-year-old women who were married before the age of 18 (UNICEF Q&A, 2018). This is the standard indicator because it is “the first demographic five-year cohort to have completed exposure to the risk of marrying in childhood” (UNICEF Q&A, 2018). This is also the same indicator, which is used in the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) framework (Goal 5 on gender equality).

However some sources use the prevalence of 20-49 year old women who were married before the age of 18, which according to the MICS survey, is a higher rate at 21.4% for the West Bank and 28.6% for Gaza (PCBS, 2015). This can make data for child marriage appear inconsistent and it is not an accurate representation of current trends. The percentage is higher when looking at a broader age group because child marriage was previously more prevalent. While child marriage trends have generally decreased throughout Palestine, certain regions have experienced stalled progress and more data and interventions are needed to address this reality.