Spikes in Child Marriage Evidence a ‘Shadow Pandemic’ Amidst the Covid-19 Outbreak

Areeshya Thevamanohar is a third year Politics student at King’s. Growing up in Malaysia, and then moving to London, she hopes to keep exploring the interchangeable relationship between gender and societal norms.

[Featured Image: Illustration by Tallulah Fontaine; ‘I Was Married at 14’. Seven girls standing side by side, with six carrying schoolbags whilst dressed in school uniforms, but one carrying a bouquet of flowers whilst wearing a wedding dress. Source.]

Covid-19 has at the very least upended the everyday lives of most. For some, better economic circumstances have helped cushion the blow on the financial front. However, with most countries on lockdown as a result of the pandemic, it’s hard to fully conceive how far-reaching the societal effects have been, particularly to vulnerable communities. 

A recently published report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) predicted the pandemic could lead to an extra 13 million child marriages over the next decade. It warned that the crisis could undo decades of work to end the practice. 

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) defines child marriage as any formal marriage or informal union between a child under the age of 18 and an adult or another child. Experts are citing economic insecurity and the closure of schools as common reasons for the recent uptick in child marriage numbers. 

The estimations in the UNFPA report were enough to ignite alarm and unity between former world leaders. In an open letter, they called for urgent global action to stop Covid-19 from creating a “COVID generation,” a newly termed category that could see millions of children deprived of an education and instead forced into marriage and work. 

The 275 signatories included former British prime ministers Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and John Major, former UN chief Ban Ki-Moon, former Irish president Mary Robinson and former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark. The letter was addressed to G20 heads, governments, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other development banks. 

According to the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Girls Not Brides, lockdowns and school closures implemented during the pandemic have already caused 743 million girls to miss out on their education. The organisation has already stated that around 20 million more secondary school-aged girls are predicted to be out of school before Covid-19 is over. 

Girls Not Brides cited difficulties in accessing online and distance learning as a challenge. “Restrictions on travel and strict curfews mean that many member organisations are now physically unable to reach girls and communities that they support, especially those in rural areas” it added. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has deepened poverty and is likely to pile further financial burdens onto families. Child marriage can often present an appropriate solution for the survival of the family. World Vision’s child marriage expert Erica Hall told the Thomas Reuters Foundation (TRF) that many parents marry off girls as a way to reduce the number of children they have to support or to access dowries. “It really is a survival mechanism. Parents aren’t doing it maliciously – they just don’t see any alternative” she added. 

An article by Joud Monla-Hassan and Mona Yacoubian from the United States Institute of Peace noted marrying a daughter to someone who has the financial means to provide medical resources, particularly health insurance, can be seen as a way to safeguard a young girl’s well-being during a health crisis. 

In Africa, countries such as Kenya, Malawi and Ethiopia have reported spikes in teenage pregnancies and early marriages. The World Health Organisation (WHO) said that of the 39 countries surveyed in sub-Saharan Africa, only six have fully reopened schools. 

According to UNFPA, should the reduction in GDP per capita be 10%, then an estimated 5.6 million additional child marriages are likely to take place between 2020 and 2030. The World Bank has already predicted that 24 million fewer people will escape poverty in Southeast Asia this year as a result of the pandemic. With economies experiencing GDP contractions and less people escaping poverty, there is an appeal to child marriages if it means families struggle less to put food on the table. 

As for how to solve this, the open letter has urged the institutions addressed to back an emergency plan, including the protection of frontline national education budgets, debt relief measures for developing countries and increased multilateral aid. 

Girls Not Brides has listed short term interventions that are being pursued include providing girls and their families with food, menstrual hygiene products and other emergency items to alleviate the immediate effects of the crisis. 

It said member organisations have shifted towards online education and offline support including the provision of USB keys, radios and printed resources for girls to access lessons at home. 

As a longer-term intervention, it said member organisations have carried out assessments to understand the impacts of Covid-19 on girls, alongside developing follow-up plans with families to ensure girls return to schools once lockdowns are lifted and launching awareness campaigns that encourage families to continue supporting education. 

Joud and Mona’s article proposes government support for the continuation of remote learning in regions where the internet is not available. “This could involve the dispersal of educational material through the mail or providing lectures via radio to ensure schooling does not come to a full stop.” 

The article also suggests that governments should consider providing basic income grants to families who have young children that have also lost their livelihoods due to the pandemic. “This can serve as an incentive against turning to early child marriage as a financial solution.” 

Given that the world is battling a global pandemic right now, it will be challenging to get governments – especially those struggling to protect their economies and the health of their people from the direct effects of this virus – to factor all of the above. Such ‘shadow pandemics’ like the rise in child marriages are likely to be viewed as secondary problems. 

This is a grave problem; nonetheless, one that if not adequately addressed soon enough will merely worsen as time passes. From an economic standpoint alone, the World Bank said African countries would lose at least $60 billion in lifetime earnings – more than what the world gives the continent in aid annually, as long as this problem continues to exist. 

So perhaps as we continue to remain in the eye of the virus’s storm, the work will fall heavier on NGOs as they continue to raise awareness alongside assistance from development banks. One can only hope that governments will soon be able to place education and the protection of children from practices like child marriage higher up on their agendas to ensure the ‘COVID generation’   is safe.

As a UNFPA representative put it, “when so many girls and women are unwanted, cut, erased, given, traded and sold, our common future is undermined. We should all be outraged. We cannot let anything, not even the Covid-19 pandemic, get in our way.” 

AFP News Agency (2020) Coronavirus despair forces girls across Asia into child marriage. Al Jazeera. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/09/coronavirus-despair-forces-girls-asia-child-marriage-200902071153195.html

 [Accessed 3 September 2020]

Batha. E (2020) Coronavirus could put 4 million girls at risk of child marriage. World Economic Forum. Available at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/05/coronavirus-early-child-marriage-covid19-pandemic/ [Accessed 29 August 2020]

Batha. E (2020) COVID generationrisks child marriage, forced labour, ex-leaders warn. Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-education-childlab/covid-generation-risks-child-marriage-forced-labour-ex-leaders-warn-idUSKCN25D2P3 [Accessed 31 August 2020]

Bhalla. N (2020) Futures destroyed: COVID-19 unleashes shadow pandemicson Africas girls. Reuters. Available at: https://uk.reuters.com/article/health-coronavirus-africa-women/corrected-insight-futures-destroyed-covid-19-unleashes-shadow-pandemics-on-africas-girls-idUKL4N2F92NT [Accessed 31 August 2020]

Girls Not Brides (2020) Whats happening to girlseducation during the Covid-19 pandemic? Girls Not Brides Blog. Available at: https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/educating-girls-during-covid-19/ [Accessed 30 August 2020]

Hassan J. M and Yacoubian. M (2020) COVID will lead to more child marriage – what can be done? United States Institute of Peace. Available at: https://www.usip.org/publications/2020/08/covid-will-lead-more-child-marriage-what-can-be-done [Accessed 30 August 2020]

Nortajuddin. A (2020) Pandemic Causing Child Marriage To Spike. The Asean Post. Available at: https://theaseanpost.com/article/pandemic-causing-child-marriage-spike

[Accessed 29 August 2020]

Reuters News Agency (2020) Covid-19 increases child marriage and FGM risk for millions: UN. Reuters. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/06/covid-19-increases-child-marriage-fgm-risk-millions-200630070320006.html [Accessed 31 August 2020]

Srivastava. R (2020) Indias Covid-19 lockdown threatens efforts to stop spikes in child marriage. Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-india-children/indias-covid-19-lockdown-threatens-efforts-to-stop-spikes-in-child-marriage-idUSKCN258005 [Accessed 30 August 2020]

UNFPA (2020) Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Family Planning and Ending Gender-based Violence, Female Genital Mutilation and Child Marriage. UNFPA. Available at: https://www.unfpa.org/resources/impact-covid-19-pandemic-family-planning-and-ending-gender-based-violence-female-genital [Accessed 30 August 2020]

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