School closures and loss of income due to the Coronavirus pandemic will put an additional four million girls at risk of child marriage in the next two years. In the next decade, 13 million additional child marriages will take place as efforts to stop them are disrupted, according to the United Nations. International organizations had been making progress in the area, many on track to hit significant targets by 2030, but now struggle with decreased funding and access.
Girls Not Brides, a global partnership committed to ending child marriage, released a statement detailing how COVID-19 is affecting the work of their member nations. School closures not only restrict access to education, they place another economic burden on families who depend on the meals provided during the school day. Without no end to the pandemic in sight, families see marriage as a chance to save money and make sure their daughters are placed in secure homes.
The report also claims that organizations trying to address the problem are being constricted as governments restrict activities or redirect funding. In India, all non-governmental organizations are required to focus solely on the virus. Groups such as the United Nations Global Programme work to stop child marriage, and are only able to continue this because they are able to go directly into communities. They work with girls and families to establish a community dialogue, teach targeted skills, and ensure quality education and health services.
As poverty deepens and food insecurity rises, families are forced to think about the short-term well-being of their children, and prioritize keeping them fed and safe over ensuring their empowerment and success.
Programs targeted at child marriage were working. The Global Programme “provided information, skills and services to over 3 million girls and almost 14 million community members in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia” as part of their Phase 1 from 2016 to 2019. The problem is that during lockdown they will not be nearly as effective, and organizations will lose many of their hard-fought gains. They will also struggle to restart their efforts when the pandemic ends. They will lose funding, staff, attention, and local connections that are vital to their programs.
NGOs may also find that the areas they left will look much different when they return. The UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to End Child Marriage focuses its efforts in 12 countries: Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Mozambique, Nepal, Niger, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Yemen and Zambia. Many of these nations but were hit with new waves of Islamic extremism, destructive climate events, and human rights abuses in 2020. Everything is continuing to pile up, with lasting impacts that have yet to be predicted.
Girls whose schools have closed have returned home to find there are more responsibilities than ever before. They will take on tasks to support the household and some may never continue their education. If they get married, disruptions to the health systems means they will not have access to contraceptives. The UNFPA predicts that if these disruptions and lockdowns continue, there will be seven million unintended pregnancies in these nations. Girls who have not yet had the chance to become women will become mothers. In this period, they also predict an additional 30 million cases of gender-based violence as people spend more time at home.
We have seen time and time again that the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic is focused on disadvantaged communities. The effect of lockdowns and closures on child marriage is a reminder of the harsh implications of a poverty trap. Without help, young women who were unable to find success on their own will be unable to create opportunities for their children. Years of focused and coordinated efforts had presented hope that millions of girls would find economic and social independence. That hope is fading in this strange new world.