Ten million additional child marriages may occur before the end of the decade, threatening years of progress in reducing the practice, according to a new analysis released by UNICEF on Monday.
COVID-19: A threat to progress against child marriage – released on International Women’s Day – warns that school closures, economic stress, service disruptions, pregnancy, and parental deaths due to the pandemic are putting the most vulnerable girls at increased risk of child marriage.Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, 100 million girls were at risk of child marriage in the next decade, despite significant reductions in several countries in recent years. In the last ten years, the proportion of young women globally who were married as children had decreased by 15 percent, from nearly 1 in 4 to 1 in 5, the equivalent of some 25 million marriages averted, a gain that is now under threat.
“Despite significant progress in recent years, Bangladesh has the fourth highest prevalence of child marriage in the world. COVID-19 compounds the difficulties facing millions of girls. School closures, isolation from friends and support networks, and rising poverty places girls at heightened risk of child marriage,” said Tomoo Hozumi, UNICEF Representative in Bangladesh.
“International Women’s Day is a key moment to reflect on what girls stand to lose if we do not act urgently – their education, their health, and their futures.”
Girls who marry in childhood face immediate and lifelong consequences. They are more likely to experience domestic violence and less likely to remain in school. Child marriage increases the risk of early and unplanned pregnancy, in turn increasing the risk of maternal complications and mortality. The practice can also isolate girls from family and friends and exclude them from participating in their communities, taking a heavy toll on their mental health and well-being.
COVID-19 is profoundly affecting the lives of girls. Pandemic-related travel restrictions and physical distancing make it difficult for girls to access the health care, social services and community support that protect them from child marriage, unwanted pregnancy and gender-based violence. As schools remain closed, girls are more likely to drop out of education and not return. Job losses and increased economic insecurity may also force families to marry their daughters to ease financial burdens.
Worldwide, an estimated 650 million girls and women alive today were married in childhood, with about half of those occurring in Bangladesh, Brazil, Ethiopia, India and Nigeria. To off-set the impacts of COVID-19 and end the practice by 2030 – the target set out in the Sustainable Development Goals – progress must be significantly accelerated.“One year into the pandemic, Bangladesh risks losing hard-won gains on child marriage,” added Hozumi.
“Urgent action is needed to reopen schools and ensure access to health and social protections services, so we can significantly reduce the risk of child marriage and ensure girls are not robbed of their childhood.”