Setting the scene
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic risks undoing decades of progress for girls' rights and gender equality.
When cases of COVID-19 started emerging in West and Central African (WACA) countries in late February, governments responded rapidly by closing borders, restricting internal travel, initiating curfews, and closing schools and market places.
Prior to the crisis, UNICEF suggested that if efforts to end child marriage were not accelerated, WACA risked becoming the region with the highest numbers of child brides by 2050. The impacts of COVID-19 related restrictions – including disruptions to child marriage programming and wide-reaching economic crises and associated stresses on families – will further weaken planned efforts to end child marriage.
As a result of COVID-19, girls and young women – in all their diversity, including married girls – in WACA face huge disruptions in their access to food, livelihoods, education and healthcare, including sexual and reproductive health (SRH) information and services. Child marriage is deeply rooted in gender inequalities and discriminatory social norms. The underlying drivers of child marriage in the WACA region – including family poverty, barriers for girls staying in or returning to school, the taboo around female sexuality linked to the perceived 'shame' of a pregnancy out of wedlock, and limited SRH services and information for girls and young women – are heightened during crisis. Girls living in crisis settings, including this pandemic, are at greater risk of being married under the age of 18 and of being subjected to other forms of exploitation, gender based violence and harmful practices rooted in gender inequality.