Covid-19 a further set back to fight against child marriage

Two major new reports have been released by the United Nations, both timed for international women’s month, and both pointing to the dire situation of many young woman around the world.

Read the UNICEF report

Read the WHO report

One of the new reports, issued by UNICEF, the UN’s Children’s Fund, paints a stark picture of how Covid has negatively impacted on the international fight to end child marriages.

The other, a report from the World Health Organisation, deals with sexual violence which it describes as ‘devastatingly pervasive’. New data bring statistics up to date as of 2018, and finds that one in three women – or around 736 million women world-wide - are subjected to physical or sexual violence by a partner or non-partner. This figure has remained largely unchanged over the past decade, despite programmes aimed at improving the situation.

The report finds that sexual violence follows a recognisable pattern, starting early: one in four young women who have been in a relationship will have experienced violence by an intimate partner by the time they reach their mid-twenties, according to the report’s data.

No vaccine

WHO’s director-general, Tedros Ghebreyesus, was obviously concerned about the statistics found in this research. ‘Violence against women is endemic in every country and culture,’ he said. It caused harm to millions of women and their families, and it had been made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Unlike Covid-19, however, there was no vaccine that could stop violence against women. ‘We can only fight it with deep-rooted and sustained efforts – by government, communities and individuals – to change harmful attitudes, improve access to opportunities and services for women and girls, and foster healthy and mutually respectful relationships.’

The UNICEF report discussed how Covid-19 is influencing the long-running battle against child marriages. It says that the pandemic is forcing changes on society, particularly on the everyday lives of girls in such a way that the likelihood of child marriage was increased. It concludes: ‘Up to 10 million more girls will be at risk of becoming child brides as a result of the pandemic.’

School closures

One way that Covid-19 influences the future of girls is through the closure of schools. These closures ‘push girls towards marriage since school is no longer an option.’

In addition, many communities have seen the disruption of ‘non-essential services’ because of the pandemic. Reproductive health services are often included in the close-downs and this has a ‘direct impact on teenage pregnancy and subsequently on marriage,’ says the report.

When households are hit by the economic difficulties caused by Covid-19, child marriage may seem ‘a boon to a household’s income in communities where a bride price is paid by the groom’s family to the bride’s family.’

Female orphans

Marriage might also seem the best option to girls living in homes where household income is dropping due to the pandemic.

Among many explanations for the increase in child marriages, the report also include the death of a parent. When that happens, family members might find it hard to support a female orphan and would tend to consider marrying her off.

The report notes that this is not a major pathway, because Covid-19 deaths tend to be most common among older individuals – grandparents, rather than parents. In some communities, however, families have already been hit by HIV-AIDS with parents dying from this earlier pandemic and leaving households to be headed by grandparents or by children themselves.