Pandemic accelerates need for comprehensive efforts to tackle child marriage

Jennifer Venis, IBA Multimedia Journalist, and Kirstyn Malcolm, IBA Junior Content EditorFriday 11 December 2020

Covid-19’s impact on children’s education and the increased exposure of families to financial crisis will result in an additional 13 million child marriages before 2030, estimates the UN Population Fund and research partners.

According to non-governmental organisation Save the Children in their Global Girlhood Report 2020 – published in early October – half a million of these marriages will take place before the end of 2020. The greatest number of additional girls at risk is expected to be in South Asia (956,000 in five years), followed by Western and Central Africa (450,000 in five years).

The closure of educational institutions has significantly increased risks for girls. Nankali Maksud, Senior Advisor, Child Protection at UNICEF, tells Global Insight that ‘school closures due to Covid-19 has meant the most vulnerable children may be at increased risk of harm, including sexual and gender-based violence, economic insecurity and gender inequalities, as well as increased risk from breakdowns of law, social support networks and essential services’.

We urge governments to develop and implement laws setting the minimum age of marriage to 18 years old, but the law by itself is not sufficient

Nankali Maksud
Senior Advisor, Child Protection, UNICEF

She says the socio-economic impact of the pandemic has meant families are turning to negative coping mechanisms such as child marriage.

‘I don’t think parents need to be taught that they shouldn’t allow their girls to get married. They’re completely conscious of that. But if we’re not supporting parents … they have to make very tough decisions about how they survive as a unit’, Maksud explains.

Girls who have been married during school closures are unlikely to return to education. According to the charity Girls Not Brides, girls are often expected to drop out of school shortly before – and permanently after – marriage, and laws in some jurisdictions prevent young mothers and married girls from returning. Girls Not Brides says girls without access to education are ‘likely to be poor and remain poor’, trapped in cycles of poverty.

‘Our priority is to get all children back to school’, says Maksud. ‘We know that in crises, harmful gender norms and power imbalances are exacerbated [and] evidence from past epidemics, such as Ebola, indicate that efforts to contain outbreaks often interrupt girls’ education.’

Schools are also key access points for menstrual products and other sexual and reproductive healthcare, and limited access can threaten girls’ lives.

Further, child brides are likely to become pregnant while adolescents, increasing the risk of complications from pregnancy and childbirth. Such complications are already the leading cause of death among adolescent girls aged 15-19, according to Save the Children.

In the context of the pandemic, the capacity of NGOs like UNICEF that seek to prevent child marriage has been limited by containment measures such as social distancing. ‘The impacts of Covid-19 have meant we don’t have the protection mechanisms that we normally would have’, explains Maksud.

UNICEF has ‘become very dependent on community protection mechanisms … volunteers who are the only ones who are able to reach out to the most vulnerable girls’, she highlights.

Although Maksud says UNICEF’s response has focused on emergency interventions, it and other NGOs have put forward key recommendations to tackle and prevent child marriage.

Among these, criminalising the practice is key. Maksud says many countries have outlawed the practice, although some lack the resources to implement those laws in hard-to-reach areas.

‘We urge governments to develop and implement laws setting the minimum age of marriage to 18 years old, but the law by itself is not sufficient’, says Maksud. She adds that, particularly in the Covid-19 environment, ‘unless you have multiple interventions, such as access to education, health and social protection services, you are not going to make a difference’.

Gabrielle Szabo is Save the Children’s Senior Policy and Advocacy Adviser on Gender Equality and author of The Global Girlhood Report 2020. She tells Global Insight that ‘investment in social protection will be critical in avoiding the worst impacts of Covid-19 for girls’.

Governments must work together to deliver universal child benefits and prioritise social spending in 2021, Szabo says. ‘[They must] create more fiscal space for child-focused social protection, aiming towards at least one per cent of their country’s economic output (GDP).’

The pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities that denied girls’ right to education and access to healthcare. Szabo says it’s essential that resources are not diverted from routine health services that girls rely on, and recommends increased investment in removing barriers to girls’ access to school, which include cost, distance, risk of violence on the way to and at school, as well as the provision of sanitation facilities and period management products.

Covid-19 has made lifting bans on pregnant girls attending school more important than ever. In mid-November, international women’s rights organisation Equality Now filed a joint case at the African Court on Human and People’s Rights against the Government of Tanzania, seeking to overturn its ban on pregnant girls attending school.

The filing ‘marks an important step towards the realization of the right to education for all girls in Tanzania’, highlights Faiza Mohamed, the Director of Equality Now’s Africa office, in a statement. Tanzania has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the world.

Save the Children believes the international community must continue to encourage countries to introduce strategies to enable young mothers to continue their education post-pandemic by passing laws against gender-based violence, developing and implementing multisectoral national action plans, and working with communities.

Similarly, Nwanne Okafor, a freelance victimologist based in Nigeria, believes the priority must be to embark on a sensitisation exercise. She says, ‘the culture of collective responsibility should be considered. Cases of child marriage are predominantly practiced in the villages, therefore, engaging the community heads and religious leaders to help in sensitising and educating their community may be the first step.’

She says the uniqueness of culture should be taken into account before formal and effective recommendations can be made in regions such as Africa.

Szabo also emphasises the importance of women and girls’ leadership and the ‘absurdity’ of their continued exclusion from decision-making spaces. The Global Girlhood Report 2020 states that ‘the global agenda for equality must be designed in partnership with girls and treat progress for their present and futures as the truest measure of its success’, and acknowledges that girls have the right to participate in decisions that affect them under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Image: costas anton dumitrescu / Shutterstock.com