Child marriage cannot be tolerated in the 21st century

Worldwide, an estimated 650 million girls and women alive today were married as children. For some of these women and girls – this means a life of being denied their rights. Denied a seat in the classroom. Denied a chance to make their own decisions and denied a voice.

In the places where child marriage is most prevalent, the practice limits choice, limits futures, and limits the lives of millions of girls. It undermines our commitment to gender equality. And it blocks our progress towards the better, fairer world envisioned by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

Despite this daunting number there is some good news. Even though the total number of girls married in childhood is now estimated at 12 million a year, this figure suggests 25 million fewer marriages than what was anticipated under global levels 10 years ago.

Although we have made tangible progress in the last 25 years – following on the success of the International Conference on Population and Development and the Beijing Declaration, in which countries agreed to end child marriage everywhere – we are currently facing headwinds.

A young woman in her school uniform.
UNICEF/Soumi DasMoushumi Bhuniya, a student, reported her proposed marriage plans to the concerned authorities and got it cancelled. She has resumed her studies at Gouripur High School, Bengal, India.

Ending the practice of child marriage would save billions of dollars in annual welfare expenditures, resulting in global savings of more than US$4 trillion by 2030, according to the International Center for Research on Women and the World Bank. The International Monetary Fund goes on further to show that eliminating child marriage would significantly improve economic growth — if child marriage was ended today, long-term annual per capita real GDP growth in emerging and developing countries would increase by 1.05 percentage points. Simply put, child marriage cannot be tolerated in the twenty-first century.

Global programmes such as the UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to End Child Marriage have provided a blueprint on effective interventions to address child marriage. An independent evaluation of the programme found that –  in addition to surpassing its targets – the programme also played a unique role in combining the capabilities of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to facilitate the multi-sectoral approach needed to handle the complex set of inter-related issues that enable child marriage.

Today the situation is further compounded by COVID-19 pandemic. This pandemic has upended the lives of children and families across the globe. School closures and movement restrictions are disrupting children’s routines and support systems.

A young woman on a sports field in traditional robes.
UNICEF/AyeneSabirin Nur, 18, a Somali refugee student, practices with her teammates at a UNICEF-supported primary school. Sabirin said “As a female, many of us face challenges with our parents – like forced marriage or relatives trying to get us married. They want us to go home and be wives.”

We know from the Ebola outbreaks and from other public health crises that adolescent girls are disproportionally affected by emergencies. Child marriage, sexual violence and exploitation, and adolescent pregnancy increase. Efforts to stop the Ebola epidemics led to school closures and a loss of education, they also meant a decrease in access to reproductive health information and services, as well as a loss of livelihoods and shrinking social support networks. This undermines the very foundations of programme strategies to end child marriage and threatens progress made over the past decade.

To accelerate our pace toward the SDG target, we must ensure a human rights-approach in the pandemic response, which explicitly prioritises the respect, protection, and fulfillment of children’s rights. This is in addition to ensuring that policies and programmes consider and address gender-based risks and vulnerabilities, whether for girls or boys.

Working with key influencers, community groups, women and youth groups, health workers, and community volunteers, we must look at what can be done, what should be done, and what we can do together in the months and years toward 2030. Our movement cannot move unless governments, communities, local organizations, religious and traditional leaders — men, women, boys, and girls — all of us rally behind girls.

The rights of girls and women — and the lives of girls and women — should be respected and fought for every day.  Based on learning from programmes such as the UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to End Child Marriage aimed at ending child marriage we should support national COVID-19 response plans through:

  • Working towards getting girls back to schools and in the short- to mid-term look at how to keep them learning through distance education and virtual, adolescent-friendly methods through TV and radio
  • Providing gender-sensitive cash transfers to prevent families from turning to child marriage as a negative coping strategy
  • Ensuring the continued provision of sexual and reproductive health services and information to adolescents and services that prevent and respond to gender-based violence
  • Providing mental health and psychosocial support for adolescents and their caregivers
  • Ensuring social welfare support and referrals for adolescents who are quarantined, hospitalized or left without a care provider
  • Using mass media, community radio, and social media to provide adolescents and communities with information around the harms of child marriage
  • Creating safe online opportunities for adolescents to share their experiences and concerns, communicate with their peers and access sources of support
  • Investing in learning about what is happening during the crisis in order to draw important lessons to inform efforts to end child marriage during the pandemic and beyond

To ensure we leave no one behind in our efforts to end child marriage, programs need to pay particular attention to the impact of COVID-19 on especially particularly vulnerable adolescents. And as with all crises, girls and women will be the most severely impacted in all areas.

Nankali Maksud is a Senior Advisor Child Protection at UNICEF and Global Coordinator of the UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to End Child Marriage

Kristin Andersson is a Child Protection Officer at UNICEF Headquarters

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