Source: Save The Children
The coronavirus pandemic continues to have a devastating impact on the lives of children all around the world. The crisis has been exacerbating existing inequalities in society – including gender inequalities.
In our recently published Save our Education report, we highlighted that as many as 10 million children are at risk of not being able to return to school after the pandemic – for a range of reasons. One of those reasons will be child marriage – a risk that is extremely concerning. When a young girl is forced into marriage, it robs her of her rights, well-being and future.
Girls at risk
We’ve read and heard about the toll this crisis has on women and girls – from economic impacts due to insecure work to poor health outcomes, restrictions in mobility and decision making, through to rising gender-based violence in the home. Many girls around the world will be expected to help with household chores, disproportionately more than boys.
In lower income households in particular, children may also need to work to support their families. And for the vast majority of girls already at risk of being forced into marriage, the mix of school closures, economic hardships and existing cultural, societal and gender norms around the role of women, is likely to push girls into an earlier marriage.
We spoke to girls around the world, to hear their concerns about exactly this.
In Niger, we spoke to Aicha*, a young girl who told us that she studies hard as she wants to be a nurse. Aicha* lives in the country with a child marriage prevalence rate of 76%, the highest in the world, and where at the peak of the pandemic 3.8 million children were out of school across the country. She told us:
‘The reason why I would like to become a nurse is that in rural areas most of the nurses are male – that’s why women feel ashamed to tell their real health problems to nurses. But if the nurse is female, women could talk to her without shame.’
She went on to explain, ‘Not going to school exposes girls to child marriage… If I dropped out of school today, I wouldn’t be able to achieve my goal and I’m sure I’d be given in marriage’.
It is hard to estimate how many girls are at risk as a result of the pandemic. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) suggested in April that as many as 13 million more child marriages could occur over the next 10 years. What is undeniable is that we are at serious risk of failing to meet our commitments to girls, enshrined in the SDGs, to end child marriage by 2030.
So, knowing the risks, how can we build on what works – and adapt it in the time of COVID-19 – to prevent more girls being married as children?
Steps to prevent child marriage
We are adopting some key strategies – building on our own experience and the experience of our partners in the Girls not Brides coalition – and which we’d encourage other actors to consider:
1. Empower girls. Invest in girls, their participation and well-being.
Our work empowering girls has continued despite COVID-19. We have supported children around the world to keep raising their voices on how the pandemic has impacted their lives and their requests to decision makers.
Girls like Zahra, aged 14, from Indonesia who spoke up to UN decision-makers to say “Every child, including girls, has the right to an education and a good future”. And girls like Diaminatou in Mali, a 16-year-old high school student and president of the child parliament in Bamako, who wrote a powerful poem on the situation of education in her country.
2. Mobilise families, communities and local influencers to change attitudes and behaviour related to child marriage.
To really build long-lasting change, it is crucial to engage local power holders like religious and traditional leaders to shift discriminatory attitudes, social and gender norms and transform local influencers into stronger champions of equal rights for girls.
COVID-19 disrupted the ways a community comes together. But our creative staff and partners have found innovative ways around it, sharing messages and bringing people together through local channels of communication.
In Sierra Leone, for example, we are trialling a new mobile phone app, designed by adolescents themselves, to provide accurate information on subjects from menstrual hygiene to sexual health and rights. The app has even been adapted to provide additional information on preventing the spread of coronavirus.
3. Establish and implement laws and policies for preventing child marriage and supporting girls who are already married.
The COVID-19 crisis is forcing everyone to re-think priorities in order to support economies and citizens in exceptionally challenging times. We would like to see more countries follow the example of Sierra Leone which, after the high level of teenage pregnancy during the Ebola crisis, introduced a sexual offences act earlier this year. The President recently announced One Stop Centres for confidential psychosocial counselling, free medical treatment and legal support to victims of gender-based violence and a new model court for sexual offences.
4. Provide Services across a range of sectors
Services across all sectors – health, education, cash transfers, child protection services – need to reinforce each other and be tailored to the specific needs of children at risk of child marriage and married girls.
In Somalia for example, our teams found that during long periods of school closure many cases of child rights abuses – including child marriage – needed to be tackled. So we developed guidelines for remote psychosocial support to children and teachers during the COVID-19 crisis. Ensuring child protection services are able to continue and are integrated in emergency response plans is essential to respond to the risk of increased child marriage, as well as other child rights abuses.
It’s up to all of us
In times of crisis, it is often the most marginalised and vulnerable children who are at a greater risk. By focusing on a few powerful approaches, we can work together to prevent girls from being married too early.
We have heard the concerns of children like Aicha*, Diaminatou and Zahra. Now it is up to us to invest in ways to protect the millions of other girls like them, who are at risk of an early marriage and early end to their childhood.
*Name changed to protect identity.
All over the world, Save the Children is rapidly adapting existing work whilst preparing for outbreaks of coronavirus in countries with limited capacity to respond. We’ve also launched the #SaveOurEducation campaign to tackle the global education emergency.