Think global, act local: unpacking progress towards ending child marriage and averting the setbacks of COVID-19

By Chiara Orlassino, Research Adviser and Gabrielle Szabo, Senior Gender Equality Adviser, Save the Children UK1

In 2021, over 28,000 girls got married on International Women’s Day. Ten years from now, the number might still be as high as 26,000 – a far cry from the net zero target of Agenda 2030 (Fig. 1). The grim estimate for 2030 doesn’t even take into account the impact of COVID-19 on child marriage rates, although evidence shows that the pandemic is having a detrimental effect on girls’ rights. With only 10 years to go to 2030, we reflect on progress made on one of the most important Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and call for urgent action on inequalities in particular, which COVID-19 is exacerbating. The Generation Equality forum convened by UN Women is a timely process to prioritise gender equality in recovery efforts, building momentum around economic and political investment in girls’ rights.

Last year, Save the Children’s Global Girlhood Report 2020 shed light on progress towards key targets since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action 25 years prior. Among others, child marriage emerged as one area where strides forward had been particularly fragile and at risk of a dramatic reversal due to COVID-19. Our analysis estimates that the economic impacts of the pandemic alone will put up to half a million more girls at risk of child marriage worldwide by 2025, although the real effect will likely be much larger.

We have argued before that effective strategies to end child marriage are increasingly localised. This is why it’s vital to unpack averages and dissect how progress unfolds across geographies and time. Zooming in from the global to the regional level, we can see that while some regions have taken remarkable strides forward, others are lagging (Fig. 2). For instance, child marriage rates in South and East Asia have declined steeply in recent decades, and progress has gained further momentum in the most recent decade compared to the decade prior. By contrast, little has changed in West and Central Africa over the past 10 years, with the rate of decline slowing down drastically compared to the previous decade. This is a worrisome finding because West and Central Africa has the highest rate of child marriage globally, and is home to a high – and growing – number of girls that will be exposed to this risk if trends do not change.

The Leave No One Behind principle underlying Agenda 2030 and the SDGs is that true progress is inclusive. This means that all children’s rights must be fulfilled, the furthest behind children must progress the fastest, and gaps between the most and least disadvantaged groups must narrow. These dynamics are best explored at the national level.

However, within countries, inclusive progress hasn’t always materialised (Fig. 3). Often, an apparently improving national situation is driven by progress among girls that are relatively more advantaged in economic and social terms. This is the case in Colombia, for example, where progress in reducing child marriage rates has flatlined for the poorest girls, but continues for girls in the top wealth quintile. In other cases, a stagnating picture at the national level hides widening gaps in child marriage rates between different social and economic groups. This happened in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, between 2008 and 2018, when the risk of child marriage went up for the poorest girls, but not the richest ones.

Wealth isn’t the only driver of diverging rates of progress at the subnational level. For instance, in Bolivia, between 2008 and 2016 the likelihood of entering child marriage decreased for urban girls (from 18 to 15%) but increased for rural girls (from 30 to 34%). In Ethiopia, between 2005 and 2016 the risk of child marriage decreased by 13% for rural girls and by 41% for urban girls. Finally, region of residence is often the greatest determinant of deprivation: in Iraq in 2018, less than 1 in 10 girls married early in Duhok, but almost 1 in 2 did in Misan.

To sum up, progress has been too slow at the global level, uneven at the regional level, and not always inclusive at the country level, often led by the already better-off segments of the girls’ population. COVID-19 will most likely make these problems worse because it is jeopardising gains towards ending child marriage in multiple ways. First, it exacerbates gender inequalities and discrimination, the root causes of gender-based violence, including child marriage. Secondly, it is driving up risk factors for child marriage, including child poverty, school dropout rates, and the risk of teenage pregnancy. Finally, the pandemic is disrupting the delivery of critical preventive interventions, for instance availability of sexual and reproductive health services, or child protection and referral services for girls at risk.

This is not inevitable. We know progress is possible – UNICEF estimates that child marriage rates declined by 15% during the last decade. To reach the 2030 target, we must exceed projections – Save the Children recommends a reduction of at least by 14% between now and 2025 – by prioritising global investment in gender equality, committing to concrete targets, and making full use of what we know works. Girls’ leadership and meaningful inclusion in public decision-making at all levels must be fostered through sustained technical and financial resources. Grassroots women- and girl-led organisation and networks should be empowered through flexible funding. Success needs to be measured against SMART objectives and impact on girls most at risk, particularly those in fragile and humanitarian states that make up 12 of the 20 countries with the highest child marriage rates.

A strong evidence base will be key. Child marriage responses – including COVID-19 responses and recovery plans – must be based on quality, accessible, disaggregated data (such as that presented in Save the Children’s Child Inequality Tracker) as well as intersectional gender analysis. In this respect, lack of data on disability requires urgent attention both as a risk factor and consequence of child marriage. From an implementation perspective, budget analysis and costing exercises will strengthen interventions and ensure accountability. Finally, we need more research into the links between unequal progress at the local level and harmful gender norms and most importantly, what works to shift these root causes to prevent child marriage. Data collected by the OECD Development Centre for its Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) allow to uncover some of these links. For instance, a study of Burkina Faso uncovered a statistically significant link between attitudes towards and prevalence of child marriage and found lower probabilities of girls getting married before the age of 18 as education increases. Importantly, the effect of education as a protective factor grew stronger as a girl progressed through education, highlighting the role of girls’ education in the realization of gender equality.

The world faces a critical crossroads for galvanising global investment in gender equality. The UN Generation Equality process will set the global agenda for gender equality over the next five years and bring together a fresh and multisectoral coalition of champions united behind shared blueprints for action. As the consequences of COVID-19 for global widening inequalities begin to be better understood, it is essential to recommit to the principle of equitable progress, so that the girls furthest away from enjoying their full entitlements to human rights and equality are at the centre of efforts to build back better from the crisis.

1. This blog presents findings from Save the Children’s new Technical brief on child marriage trends. Country data, as well as interactive infographics on a variety of indicators and countries, can be found in Save the Children’s Child Inequality Tracker GRID.