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COVID-19 places half a million more girls at risk of child marriage in 2020

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TORONTO, ON – October 1, 2020: An estimated 500,000 more girls risk being forced into child marriage and as many as one million more are expected to become pregnant in 2020 as a result of the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, new analysis from Save the Children reveals—a year-over-year increase of four and three per cent, respectively.

The increase comes on top of the previous estimated rates of child marriage, which already anticipated 12 million girls being forced into marriage this year. While this increase represents a conservative estimate, it marks a significant surge in child marriage rates with an expected spike in teenage pregnancies and school dropouts to follow. The increase is set to reverse 25 years of progress, which saw child marriage rates decline.

In its new report Global Girlhood 2020: COVID-19 and progress in peril, Save the Children analyzed the impact of COVID-19 on gender equality, revealing its devastating effects.

Up to 2.5 million additional girls are expected to marry over the next five years. Together with the 58.4 million child marriages taking place on average every five years, this amounts to a staggering 61 million child marriages by 2025.

Girls in South Asia are disproportionately impacted by the risk of increased child marriage this year (191,000), followed by West and Central Africa (90,000), and Latin America and the Caribbean (73,400). The practice is also expected to rise in East Asia and the Pacific (61,000), Europe and Central Asia (37,200), and the Middle East and North Africa (14,400).

The risk of adolescent pregnancy in 2020 is highest for girls in East and Southern Africa (282,000), followed by West and Central Africa (260,000) and Latin America and the Caribbean (181,000).

“The pandemic means more families are being pushed into poverty, forcing many girls to work to support their families and to drop out of school—with far less of a chance than boys of ever returning,” said Bill Chambers, President and CEO of Save the Children. “A growing risk of violence and sexual exploitation combined with growing food and economic insecurity—especially in humanitarian emergencies—also means many parents feel they have little alternative but to force their young daughters, many before their 15th birthday to marry older men. These marriages violate girls’ rights leaving them at risk of gender-based violence.”

The report also shows that:

  • 78.6 million child marriages have been prevented over the last 25 years but even before the pandemic, progress to end the practice had slowed to a halt.

  • Although data is limited, girls affected by humanitarian crises face the greatest risks of child marriage. Nine of the ten countries with the highest rates of child marriage are considered fragile states.

  • The pandemic has now led to increased reports of gender-based violence around the world. With an estimated one in 10 girls globally having experienced rape or sexual violence.

  • The UN expects an additional two million cases of female genital mutilation (FGM) to take place over the next 10 years as a result of the pandemic, mostly affecting girls under 14 years.

Bill Chambers continued: “There’s no doubt the pandemic has made existing gender inequalities worse and risks reversing hard-won progress made over the last few decades. We cannot, and must not, let things spiral even further. Girls must have a seat at any decision-making table that involves their rights so they can design the future they choose. It’s time for world leaders to come together to protect a generation of girls.

“On September 29th Prime Minister Trudeau announced, $400 million in new funding to international development. As a leader in gender equality, we look forward to Canada ensuring that some of this funding goes towards enabling progress for girls.”

As world leaders prepare to meet at the UN General Assembly in New York today to make commitments to speed up progress for gender inequality on the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Women’s Conference—which, in 1995, led all governments to commit to a ‘Platform for Action’ to achieve equality for women and girls—Save the Children is calling on them to:

Raise girls’ voices by supporting their right to safe and meaningful participation in all public decision-making through the COVID-19 response, recovery and beyond.

Act to address immediate and ongoing risks of gender-based violence: recognize that child protection workers and those who address gender-based violence provide ‘essential services’; strengthen protective systems; act on the UN Secretary-General’s global ceasefire on domestic violence; and continue to implement transformative programming to address the root causes of gender-based violence.

End child marriage and support girls who are already married to realize their rights—through law reform; national action plans and working with communities to build support to change harmful gender norms.

Invest in girls now with new investments to prevent the worst outcomes of COVID-19 for girls, and to enable progress and lasting change.

Count every girl with improved data collection to put the girls who have been pushed furthest behind first. This includes disaggregating data by sex, age-group and disability; conducting and building on analysis that looks at how gender and other identities affect girls; and ensuring existing databases on child marriage, including child marriage in humanitarian contexts, fill this critical data gap in accountability to girls.