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10 million additional girls at risk of child marriage due to COVID-19

Girls united against premature marriage

This week, people around the world will come together to mark the International Day of the Girl Child, an initiative designed to raise awareness of issues confronting girls around the world. At the same time, the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) and UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) will be marking five years of work to end child marriage in the face of an upward trajectory of child brides.

Profoundly disturbing 

The statistics around child marriage are profoundly disturbing. According to UNFPA, the global number of child brides is estimated at 650 million, with 12 million girls married in childhood each year. In East and Southern Africa, 31 percent of girls were married before their 18th birthday, bringing the unchecked violation of girls’ human rights uncomfortably close to home.

Child marriage threatens the health, education, and safety of girls. It prevents them from achieving their full economic and social potential, and it subjects them to sexual violence, risky early pregnancies, obstetric fistula, and HIV. Out of every 1000 girls, 95 give birth between 15 and 19 years of age, leading to death and injury for many young mothers.

Destructive impact

The problems inflicted by child marriage run broad and deep, and the practice has a particularly destructive impact on three key areas of girls’ lives. First, when a girl begins married life, her education typically ends as she leaves school to take on the roles of mother and wife. Not only does this create a sense of social and emotional isolation, but it also means that if a girl ever gets a job, it is likely to be menial and poorly paid. The same pattern will often apply to her children.

Not only does child marriage compromise a girl’s future, but it also threatens her immediate health and safety. Marriage is often followed by pregnancy, regardless of whether the girl is physically or emotionally equipped to deal with motherhood.  In developing countries, complications arising from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among adolescent girls aged between 15 and 19. Child brides are also particularly vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases as well as gender-based violence. 

The third and, arguably, most vicious consequence of child marriage is that it takes away from girls any control they might have over their own lives. Put simply: it is a denial of their human rights. For a start, the practice denies child brides the right to choose whom and when to marry – one of life’s defining decisions. Ultimately, it means they will never be able to fulfil their personal and economic potential.

Cause and effects

Child brides will continue to suffer until the reasons behind child marriage are addressed. The practice is the toxic result of poverty combined with gender inequality. Ironically, many impoverished parents believe that an early marriage will secure their daughters’ future by allowing someone else to take care of them. Dowry traditions complicate matters. Where the bride’s family pays a dowry to the groom’s family, younger brides typically command smaller dowries, encouraging parents to marry off their daughters young. Where the groom’s family pays a bride price, impoverished parents may use their daughter’s bride value as a source of income.

Meanwhile, some well-meaning parents mistakenly believe marriage will protect their daughters from sexual violence, which often intensifies in times of crisis. Add COVID-19 to the mix and the problems escalate exponentially. Not only did the pandemic trigger massive economic hardship and widen gender gaps, but it also led to the suspension of programmes designed to tackle the causes and effects of child marriage.

There are numerous laws on statute books around the world designed to eradicate child marriage but enforcement is key.  

The silver lining to this dark cloud is that child marriage rates had been gradually falling before the pandemic struck. According to the UNFPA, recent data show that 25 million child marriages were prevented in the decade after 2008. Around the turn of the millennium, one in three women between the ages of 20 and 24 reported they had been married as children. By 2018, this number was around one in five. As Anandita Philipose, Youth and Gender Specialist of the UNFPA East and Southern Africa Regional Office, comments: “While millions of child marriages were prevented in the last decade globally, progress has been more uneven in East and Southern Africa, where high levels of gender inequality, the devastating socio-economic impact of COVID-19 and multiple humanitarian and climate crises are hampering the good work that has been done to end this harmful practice. To change this trajectory, we must accelerate our actions to end child marriage.” 

Rebooting and refocusing

As the world takes its first tentative steps towards post-pandemic recovery, the time has come to reverse this upward trend by rebooting and refocusing our efforts to eradicate the scourge of child marriage. 

With this urgent objective in mind, the Fifth Anniversary of the UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to End Child Marriage (GPECM) in the East and Southern Africa region event will run over two days, 11 and 12 October 2021, between 14:00-16:30 SAST and 08:00-10:30am EAT. 

The Programme protects and promotes the rights of adolescent girls to prevent marriage and pregnancy and addresses the underlying conditions that sustain child marriage. The programme empowered 7.9 million adolescent girls across 12 of the highest prevalence or high-burden countries in Africa and beyond in its first four years (2016‒2019). In the East and Southern Africa region, the programme has been implemented in Ethiopia, Mozambique, Uganda and Zambia.  

The celebrations will showcase the extensive work undertaken in the region to end child marriage, empower adolescent girls and young women to fulfil their potential, make healthy decisions about their bodies, and provide them with the services and information they need.  The virtual event will also allow reflection on progress made and how to build on the successes to date, incorporating new and emerging issues to move the programme forward in the region.

The event will feature speakers such as Vice President of Zambia, Her Excellency, Mutale Nalumango. Child Activist and Advocacy Leader Ms. Graça Machel, Boemo Sekgoma, SADC-PF Secretary-General, Mohamed Fall, UNICEF Regional Director for East and Southern Africa, Dr. Bannet Ndyanabangi, UNFPA Regional Director for East and Southern Africa, among others, and is hosted by gender activist Hlubi Mboya. 

Open to all, you can join online at https://bit.ly/EndChildMarriageRSVP at 14:00 – 16:30 SAST on 11-12 October. Join in, share your ideas, by spreading awareness we may reach more ears.  DM/MC

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