“I know two girls who have just gotten married during this pandemic”, Huu, a girl from Vietnam, says.
“I truly think that education offers us a chance to a brighter future. However, due to the current pandemic, many girls are giving up their learning opportunities for marriage because of the new economic hardship.”
This story has been all too common in Asia with many girls having been forced to end full-time education to get married, as their families struggled to put food on the table. The current global health crisis is rapidly making things worse.
Violence against children threatens to escalate dramatically because of the COVID-19 pandemic with girls disproportionately affected. For many girls, this and the additional risks of child marriage or forced marriage could become more of a threat than the virus itself, unless we take concrete steps to protect vulnerable and at-risk girls.
While children in Asia have been seemingly spared the worst direct health effects of the Coronavirus, it has exposed millions of girls to the risk of violence, abuse and exploitation during lockdowns and extended periods of movement restrictions.
With parents and caregivers also stuck at home, unable to earn a living, households which were already stressful environments risk now becoming dangerous for millions of girls across Asia.
Where schools have been closed, girls miss out on the protective elements associated with formal education such as life skills, access to essential information and services, and other forms of support. We worry that without the daily routine of education and protection of teachers or caregivers, out-of-school girls also face increased risks from violence or abuse at the hands of relatives, neighbors, or those within their communities, and in some cases may never return to school once they re-open.
COVID-19 has also put girls at higher risk of violence in the home. Domestic violence cases have doubled in Thailand during the quarantine period. Similar rises have been recorded in countries across the region including Bangladesh*, Singapore and Malaysia.
The combination of school closures and long-term economic distress could undo much of the progress made on reducing levels of child marriage across Asia over the past few decades. The UN estimates that COVID-19 could result in an additional 13 million child marriages worldwide over the next ten years.
The pandemic has also seen a disturbing increase in online violence against girls. As quarantine means children spend more time online to access their education, social media or other forms of entertainment, they are increasingly exposed to cyberbullying, harmful content and sexual exploitation.
One teenage girl from Nepal told us: “During the lockdown period me and my friends are mostly on social media, and there are cases of harassment. For example, a stranger approached one of my friends on social media, and they started talking. Now this boy is threatening her. If she tells her parents then they will react negatively, and rather than helping, they will blame my friend.”
Sexual and gender-based violence support services must be prioritized as an essential and lifesaving component of the response to COVID-19 across Asia. Vital services must remain open, safe, accessible and funded for girls and women who need support.
Child and sexual violence hotlines that are supporting children must be bolstered both financially and through capacity-building, so they can better respond to concerns.
The COVID-19 pandemic is threatening to reverse decades of progress achieved across the Asia-Pacific in reducing violence against children, particularly girls.
Regional leaders and governments are called to take urgent action to ensure that every girl has the opportunity to grow and develop free from violence and fear, fully protected, respected and empowered.
We cannot accept a post-COVID world where countless girls survive the pandemic, only to be denied their rights and dreams.
*In Bangladesh, April’s national impact and needs assessment compiled by a range of stakeholders including World Vision revealed that beatings by parents or guardians had increased by 42%; that there was a 40% increase of calls to the child helpline; and that 50% of those interviewed said the safety and security of girls was an issue in the lockdown. (p.9).
Bhagyashri Dengle is the Asia-Pacific Regional Director of Plan International.
Hassan Noor is the Asia Regional Director of Save the Children International.
Women’s Agenda recently partnered with Plan International Australia to launch the Girls & COVID-19 hub. Check it out here.
Picture above: A mother puts a face mask distributed by Plan International on her young daughter in Vietnam. Plan International is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in Vietnam by distributing face masks and soap and raising awareness in communities about the disease and how to prevent its spread. The organisation is promoting good hygiene practices through children’s clubs and parenting clubs, which has so far reached 52,660 children and 3,000 adults.