Ten million additional child marriages may occur around the world before the end of the decade, threatening years of progress in reducing the practice, according to a new analysis released by UNICEF earlier this week. According to the report, 650 million girls and women alive today were married in their childhood. Five countries account for about half of this total number: India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Brazil.
The report said that 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 10 years, the proportion of young women globally who were married as children had decreased by 15%, from nearly 1 in 4 to 1 in 5, the equivalent of 25 million marriages averted, a gain that is now under threat.
It was highlighted in the report that school closures due to COVID-19 have left over a billion students out of school, disrupting daily life, educational attainment and learning outcomes. It said, "Girls may drop out entirely or be less likely to re-enrol when schools reopen. School closures can also affect how children use their time. Girls may spend more time at home and unsupervised, which could increase their exposure to sexual activity, sexual violence and unwanted pregnancy. Less time in school may also cause families to perceive lower returns to girls’ education."
“COVID-19 has made an already difficult situation for millions of girls even worse. Shuttered schools, isolation from friends and support networks, and rising poverty have added fuel to a fire the world was already struggling to put out. But we can and we must extinguish child marriage,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore while releasing the report on Monday, March 8. She added, “International Women’s Day is a key moment to remind ourselves of what these girls have to lose if we do not act urgently – their education, their health, and their futures.”
According to UNICEF estimates, each year, at least 1.5 million girls under the age of 18 get married in India, which makes it home to the largest number of child brides in the world - accounting for a third of the global total. Nearly 16% adolescent girls aged 15-19 are currently married.
Also read: Are Pandemic Induced Child Marriages a Wakeup Call for India?
The report said that the levels of child marriage were highest in sub-Saharan Africa, where 35% of young women were married before the age of 18, followed by South Asia, where nearly 30% of women were married before they turned 18. Latin America and the Caribbean had about 24% of child marriages and the Middle East and North Africa had 17% of child marriages. Eastern Europe and Central Asia had about 12% of child marriages according to the report.
As COVID-19 infections overwhelm health systems and countries divert resources from routine health services to fight the pandemic, adolescent girls may face reduced access to sexual and reproductive health information and services.
The UNICEF has urged governments to take several steps to deal with this crisis. It has recommended that all adolescent girls be granted access to sexual and reproductive health information and services, regardless of their marital status. Adolescent girls (and boys) should continue to have access to comprehensive sexuality education and referrals to sexual and reproductive health services as part of distance learning, using radio or online platforms while schools are closed and physical distancing policies are in place.
However, in a country like India, where the subjects of sex and sexuality still continue to be taboo, the government needs to take extra steps to safeguard adolescent girls, especially those from vulnerable communities, from losing their childhood.
Also read: 360 Million South Asian Children Might Be Pushed into Poverty: UNICEF