Thais Bessa

Simple choices? Autonomy, power relations and agency in child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) of Syrian forced migrants

Supervisors: Dr Nicola Smith and Dr Emma Foster

My doctoral research aims at understandingwhat are the motivations and decision-making processes regarding child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) in situations of conflict and forced displacement. Using the case of Syrian forced migrants and drawing from postcolonial and poststructuralist feminist theories, the research will engage with and interrogate central analytical concepts in feminist and forced migration literatures through two secondary research questions:

  1. What are the conceptions of autonomy, power, and agency underpinning decision-making processes on CEFM?
  2. What are the perceptions and discourses on CEFM by different actors, including those experiencing it, their families, local communities, and the international community?

The research will follow the displacement journey of Syrian forced migrants in a comprehensive manner, including those in Jordan/Lebanon, the UK and USA. Data will be collected through quantitative (statistical data on marriages) and mainly qualitative methods (focus groups and interviews). To enable a broader understanding of the complex decision-making processes involved in CEFM and the different perspectives on the issue, the research will include a wide range of people and organisations, including women, men,  and children experiencing CEFM, their families, community and religious leaders, academics and staff of governmental, non-governmental and humanitarian funding organisations.

The research’s findings and analytical claims will make theoretical and empirical contributions. Theoretically, by interrogating dominant liberal framings of CEFM it will contribute to feminist scholarship on complex categories such as autonomy, agency, and power. It will also contribute to forced migration literature by shedding light into agency and decision-making processes by refugees (especially women), which are often overlooked by existing scholarship. Empirically, the research will provide a greater understanding of CEFM among Syrian forced migrants, an area that has gained limited attention by practitioners and even less by academics. It will also increase knowledge on CEFM in humanitarian contexts, which has been identified as one of the main research gaps in the field. The research is well timed given the prominence of CEFM in the international agenda and increasing interest by UN agencies, governments, NGOs, and think-tanks.


Further to an undergraduate degree in International Relations from the University of Brasilia (Brazil), I have an MSc in Forced Migration (Distinction) from Oxford University, where my dissertation was "The impact of the Colombian conflict on women: forced displacement and gender analysis". I later returned to Oxford as a Visiting Fellow, carrying out research on protracted displacement. Further to my academic background I have over 10 years of professional experience in programme management, external relations and fundraising at different UN agencies (UNHCR and UN Women) and more recently at international NGO Anti-Slavery International.

Other activities

I am a member of the International Association Studies Association (ISA) and the Political Studies Association (PSA). I am currently Academic Editor of the Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration (OxMon).

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