The World of International Organizations

Risk of child marriage rising with pandemic

Members of a girls' football team in Bangladesh that requires them to stay in school, part of Banchte Shekha organization's U.K.-aid supported program against child marriage (AN/Ricci Coughlan/DFID)
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Child marriage is increasing with up to 10 million more girls at risk of becoming brides before the age of 18 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF reported on Monday.

The U.N. children’s agency said the coronavirus profoundly affects the everyday lives of girls through school closures, disrupted health services and family financial pressures.

Even before the pandemic, UNICEF said, 100 million girls were at risk of becoming child brides and about 15 million boys were at risk of becoming child grooms. Among the major worries of children’s advocates is the higher risk of mortality linked to early marriages from pregnancy complications and childbirth, the leading causes of death among teenage girls from 15 to 19 in developing nations.

That 10 percent increase among at-risk girls because of the yearlong pandemic appears to have greatly diminished the prospect of ending child marriage globally within a decade, which is part of the United Nations’ 17 anti-poverty Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

It also reverses the progress made in the past decade, when the incidence of child brides decreased by 15 percent and an estimated 25 million marriages were averted, UNICEF said. That cut the proportion of girls married as children globally down to one-in-five.

Targeting isolation and poverty

An estimated 650 million girls and women alive today — 8 percent of the world’s 7.9 billion population — had childhood marriages. Half of those occurred in Bangladesh, Brazil, Ethiopia, India and Nigeria, due to factors such as poverty, culture, religion and social pressure.

Teen pregnancies have tripled in some of those areas, but an additional complicating factor is that many child marriages are never officially registered.

“COVID-19 has made an already difficult situation for millions of girls even worse,” Henrietta Fore, UNICEF’s executive director, said in a statement.

“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,” she said. “But we can and we must extinguish child marriage.”

Using data from 167 nations, a recent report on modern slavery found 15.4 million people trapped in a forced marriage. Among them, 71 percent were female and 29 percent were male, said Walk Free Foundation’s 2018 Global Slavery Index.

About 40 percent were younger than 15 when the marriage took place, according to Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest international human rights organization.

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