Kirsten Pontalti and Timothy P. Williams
The COVID-19 pandemic is quickly exacerbating key factors that put children at risk of marrying. It is also making child marriage prevention programming much more difficult to implement, hindering progress on the ambitious goal of eliminating child marriage by 2030 (Sustainable Development Goal 5.3, Indicator 5.3.1). Prior to the pandemic, progress would have had to increase 17-fold to prevent an estimated 100 million additional child marriages by 2030. With the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF estimates that an additional 10 million child marriages may occur before the end of the decade, threatening years of progress in reducing the practice.
The magnitude of this increase demands rapid learning and coordinated action to ensure that the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)-United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Global Programme to End Child Marriage (the Global Programme) and its partners have the resources they need to achieve the elimination goal.
This learning brief synthesizes evidence on how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting child marriage risk factors and how UNICEF, within the Global Programme, is pivoting to identify and respond to risk factors and adapt programming to COVID-19 limitations. With a focus on UNICEF’s response in five Global Programme countries - Bangladesh, Ghana, Nepal, Uganda and Yemen – the brief summarizes key lessons learned to inform current and future programme planning with evidence from the first and second waves of the pandemic.
While child marriage does affect boys, it disproportionately affects girls, especially those from poor families, from marginalized groups, and from poor and remote areas. Approximately 650 million girls and women and 115 million boys and men alive today married before the age of 18. Girls who are married early have lower school completion rates, engage in more unpaid labour and have poorer health outcomes than their peers who remain in school and do not marry early. Child marriage increases the risk of early and unplanned pregnancy, which in turn increases the risks of maternal morbidity and mortality. The younger the bride, the more likely she is to have a much older husband, have less say within the home and be a victim of intimate partner violence.
Unions between peers are also highly unstable: children lack livelihood options and economic stability, and child marriage is almost always illegal, leaving couples without legal protections. Unions often end in separation or abandonment, negatively impacting the futures of girls and boys. When child marriage is prevalent, these unions contribute to young populations, high dependency ratios and social and economic instability, hindering a country’s ability to realize a demographic dividend from its youthful population.
Decisions to form a union, formally or informally, are usually made by parents and/or adolescents in light of broader familial concerns; they are rarely solely the wishes of the individual adolescent(s). The primary factor contributing to child marriage is poverty and economic concerns: girls are 2.5 times more likely to marry before age 18 if their family is poor. Poverty influences families to see marriage as a way to secure their daughter’s future, reduce the economic burden on the household and, in some cases, raise needed funds (e.g., bride wealth). Early, unplanned pregnancy is also a significant driver of child marriage, in part due to the stigma surrounding unwed motherhood. Girls rarely drop out of school to marry, but they are far more likely to marry early if they have dropped out of school, especially when dropout is followed by pregnancy. Adolescents may initiate a union themselves if they view marriage as a way to gain independence, escape a difficult home situation, and achieve the social status of adulthood in a context where they have limited status and opportunity.
Several factors help to prevent early marriage. The most common protective factors for girls are secondary school attendance, living in an urban context, and having educated parents, financial security and livelihood opportunities. Living in a female-led household, and positive parent–child relationships and communication, can also be protective factors.
A 2021 systematic review of evaluations of child marriage prevention initiatives in low- and middle-income countries finds that single component interventions that enhance girls’ own human capacity and opportunities by supporting schooling through cash or in-kind transfers show the clearest patterns of success. In Ethiopia, the pandemic demonstrated that sustained investments in girls’ empowerment (e.g., life-skills training and legal literacy sessions) and strengthening community-level structures (e.g., women development groups and surveillance mechanisms) can increase the effectiveness of community-level interventions, such as tracking child marriages and awareness-raising. This approach also builds girls’ confidence to seek support from these structures and offer their own support to peers. Significantly, these interventions continued during lockdown while other initiatives, which were reliant on schools being open, could not. Despite the pandemic, 55 per cent of reported child marriages were cancelled in communities where UNICEF Ethiopia implements programming to prevent child marriage, compared with 37 per cent in 2019.
Efforts to prevent child marriage suffer, in part, because countries lack the resources and capacity to implement legislation and policies to protect children’s rights (including their right to education) and prevent child marriage. Despite the prevalence of national laws banning marriage under age 18, child marriage continues in many contexts in the form of informal unions and cohabitation, which effectively leaves young wives without the protections and rights common in marriage laws. However, there can be unintended negative consequences of legislative interventions, so care is required during implementation.
In Phase I (2016–2019) of the UNFPA–UNICEF Global Programme, most countries met or exceeded their programme targets, and the decade prior to the COVID-19 pandemic witnessed a decline in child marriage of approximately 15 per cent globally. Phase II (2020–2023) of the Global Programme began in 2020 with a focus on expanding scalable models. However, almost immediately, the Programme had to pivot to respond to the pandemic in order to support adolescent girls’ access to prevention and protection services, and identify new ways to deliver community-based interventions in hard-to-reach areas. Now the Programme’s goal is to design COVID-sensitive programming that strengthens communities’ resilience and capacity to prevent child marriage in the face of shocks such as infectious disease outbreaks.
“The pandemic is creating the ‘perfect storm’ of risks for child marriage…With each subsequent pandemic ‘wave’, the economic shock magnifies, sending out ripple effects that amplify the risk of child marriage for vulnerable girls and families.”