COVID-19 has amplified the difficulties and risks faced by many girls around the world – challenges faced simply because of their gender.
A new study by World Vision has found that an additional 3.3 million children are at far greater risk of child marriage due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The NGO’s research found that between March and December 2020, child marriages more than doubled in many communities in which they work, compared with 2019, while another NGO has reported that 2020 saw the largest increase in child marriage rates in 25 years.
Before the pandemic, great progress was being made in this critical area. Over the past decade, the number of young women globally who were married as children decreased by 15 per cent, from nearly 1 in 4 to 1 in 5. That equated to 25 million child marriages being averted.
Now, the pandemic is threatening to undo years of advances in this area, with devastating consequences for the girls directly impacted.
World Vision cites rising hunger levels and loss of education opportunities brought on by the global pandemic as the key driving factors for the increase in child marriage. Their on-the-ground research found that a child who went to bed hungry in the past four weeks is 60 per cent more likely to be married than their peers who did not experience hunger. Put simply, when a family is facing hunger, they may resort to arranging marriages for their daughters to put food on the table.
The number of children experiencing crisis-level hunger increased by 12 million between 2019, when COVID-19 began, and 2020. More than 41 million people (around half of them children) are currently at risk of starvation in 43 countries. There is a risk of more severe hunger in multiple countries in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.
Further, 130 million girls are currently not in school. A startling 11 million girls are predicted not to return to education as a result of COVID-19.
For the prevention of child marriage, it is important for girls to complete their education. It goes without saying that education can also provide more alternative and hopeful options for a girl’s future.
In my role as Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, I was always moved by how things that we, as girls and women, take for granted in this part of the world, like having an education and being able to work, are still rights that are having to be fought for elsewhere. Yet when women and girls have equal opportunity, maternal and child mortality rates decrease, women earn higher incomes and can build better futures for themselves and their families, and whole economies benefit.
The setback to gender equality caused by the pandemic is a stark reminder of the fact that women and girls bear a particular burden when disasters strike.
There are no quick solutions to addressing the many challenges women and girls face around our world. But collectively, and with practical support for women and girls in disadvantaged communities, the gains lost can be clawed back. It’s important that we resolve not only to build back from the pandemic experience in more inclusive and equitable ways at home, but also to contribute to global efforts to do so – including with a focus on women and girls.