Preventing a child marriage pandemic

By Gabrielle Szabo, Senior Gender Equality Adviser and Chiara Orlassino, Research Adviser, Save the Children UK

This blog is part of a series on tackling COVID-19 in developing countries. Visit the OECD dedicated page to access the OECD’s data, analysis and recommendations on the health, economic, financial and societal impacts of COVID-19 worldwide.

Shumi, 16, avoided child marriage with the support of Jasmin, a neighbour and Save the Children-trained peer leader who runs an advocacy group for girls in the village. Photo: Tom Merilion/Save The Children/Bangaladesh

By New Year’s Eve, half-a-million girls may already have married as a result of the economic crisis caused by COVID-19. New analysis from our Global Girlhood Report suggests that by 2025, 2.5 million girls may marry as children. These marriages will add to the estimated 12 million child marriages that take place every year, 2 million of which involve girls under 15 years of age.

These increases will continue over the next decade, but they are not a challenge for future leaders and communities – they are a challenge for today. The risks that set girls on a path to child marriage are already mounting, and materialising. Decision-makers and gender equality advocates must ask ourselves what we can do to stop COVID-19 triggering a child marriage pandemic now. Fortunately, our history already holds many of the answers and we are learning more about how to respond to new challenges from each other every day.

Over the past 25 years, 78.6 million child marriages have been prevented. This was achieved through policies and programming – like the UK-funded girls’ club in Bangladesh that helped Shumi (pictured) persuade her parents against marrying her at 15 – that have changed community practices and improved outcomes that reduce risk factors for girls. The steep acceleration in progress from 2000-2010 saw a 41% decrease in child marriages and shows us that the rate of progress required to end child marriage is within reach. We have done it before.  However, even before COVID-19, progress had begun to flatline in low and lower-middle income countries over the past 10 years.

Now, COVID-19 threatens to increase known risk factors like exposure to violence, being out of school and adolescent pregnancy. As many as 10 million children may never return to school when COVID-19 closures end. Save the Children projects that the economic impacts of COVID-19 could lead to an additional 1 million adolescent pregnancies this year and UNFPA estimates that interruptions to critical prevention programming could set progress to reduce gender-based violence back by one-third.

Globally, girls in the poorest households are four times more likely to marry than those in the wealthiest 20%. For families struggling to provide for their children, child marriage is sometimes seen as a way to ensure girls are financially supported. Now, COVID-19 could push more than 90-117 million children into extreme monetary poverty, increasing the number of girls living in lower-income households where child marriage is more likely.

The greatest increase in child marriages due to the COVID-19 economic crisis is expected in South Asia, with an estimated up to 1 million girls at risk over the next 5 years. A reversal of progress in South Asia means a reversal in global progress to end child marriage, as global reductions to-date have been primarily driven by progress in India. Critically, that progress has not been restricted to the wealthiest girls but was moving toward closing gaps (or “convergence”) between rich, poor, urban and rural girls. This makes India a rare and precious example of equitable progress that must be sustained, despite the threats that COVID-19 now poses.

Ensuring that girls do not bear the brunt of the growing economic crisis must be a core component of COVID-19 responses and plans to build back better. Financial and other forms of assistance that reduce pressure on families have been shown to help girls continue their education and delay marriage. Yet despite the huge expansion of financial assistance measures since COVID-19, nearly 600 million children in low and middle-income countries have received no support through these measures.

Money matters, particularly in humanitarian contexts where risk factors for child marriage are often greatest. Just 0.12% of funding in humanitarian contexts goes to child marriage and other forms of gender-based violence. This, despite the fact that nine of the ten countries with the highest rates of child marriage are ‘fragile states’. Conflict and natural and man-made disasters magnify risk factors for child marriage – girls in humanitarian contexts are more than twice as likely to be out-of-primary school as boys living in the same places, and marriage is sometimes considered a way to ensure girls are protected from violence. Rates of child marriage in the conflict- and climate-affected central Sahel region are at 70% (80-85% among poor and rural girls)  compared to 40% across Africa.  

COVID-19 is replicating the challenges girls face in humanitarian contexts worldwide and exacerbating risks in existing crisis contexts. Many of the actions needed to address child marriage in humanitarian crises are relevant to the required COVID-19 response. Collection of more localised and frequent, disaggregated data (including from girls themselves) is critical to enable real-time prevention and response as girls need it. This, and prevention, mitigation and response services must be supported by funding and policy. Yet just 0.58% of the budget for the global plan to responding to COVID-19 in areas affected by humanitarian crises is allocated to gender-based violence, and even that is yet to be funded.

There are however, new signs of progress at the national level. Since the UN Secretary General declared a global ceasefire on violence against women and girls in the home, 146 countries have signed on. The UN’s new COVID-19 Gender Response Tracker shows that 135 countries have, or plan to introduce over 700 measures to address gender-based violence in their national responses. These measures range from helplines and shelters to mobile panic buttons (Guatemala), bicycles for gender-based violence service delivery (Malawi), women-only emergency response teams (Jordan) and inclusion of women’s groups in government COVID-briefings (Uruguay).

We must learn from these new, increasingly creative and localised responses, as well as our history. Ensuring that COVID-19 does not reverse the progress we have made means doing more of what works, this time with increased investment and partnership with girls at the local level, a focus on humanitarian settings and commitment to leave no girl behind. We have arrived at the 25th anniversary of the first global blueprint for gender equality at an historic crossroads and as we look to the rebooted #GenerationEquality process there is no better opportunity to turn these learnings into action.

[1] This blog presents findings from Save the Children’s Global Girlhood Report 2020: How COVID-19 is putting progress in peril.