About 650 million girls and women alive today globally were married during their childhood, and about half of them are in Bangladesh, Brazil, Ethiopia, India and Nigeria, according to a recently released United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) report.
The UNICEF analysis highlights the prevalence of child marriage and the impact of the pandemic on this social practice. Titled 'COVID-19: A threat to progress against child marriage', the study said one crore additional child marriages might occur before the end of the decade.
It stated that as many as 10 crore girls were at risk of child marriage in the next 10 years, even before the novel coronavirus outbreak. The high number comes despite significant reductions in child marriage across several countries in the recent past.
"In the last 10 years, the proportion of young women globally who were married as children had decreased by 15 per cent, from nearly 1 in 4 to 1 in 5, the equivalent of some 25 million marriages averted, again that is now under threat," the report said.
Closure of schools, financial stress, service disruptions, pregnancy, and parental deaths due to the ongoing pandemic are putting the most vulnerable girls at the risk of getting married during childhood, according to the report.
"COVID-19 has made an already difficult situation for lakhs of girls even worse. Shuttered schools, isolation from friends and support networks, and rising poverty have added fuel to the fire the world was already struggling to put out. But we can, and we must extinguish child marriage," said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.
The pandemic-induced travel restrictions, confining oneself indoors, and physical distancing have hindered the girls' access to health care, social services, and community support that protect them from such traditions.
Child brides also run the risk of unwanted pregnancies and gender-based violence. Dropping out of school, job losses, and increased economic burden are cited as reasons forcing families to marry their daughters at a young age.
The vulnerable group is at the risk of losing their education, health, and their future, hence there is an urgent need to take adequate action. "One year into the pandemic, immediate action is needed to mitigate the toll on girls and their families," Fore said.
"By reopening schools, implementing effective laws and policies, ensuring access to health and social services – including sexual and reproductive health services – and providing comprehensive social protection measures for families, we can significantly reduce a girl's risk of having her childhood stolen through child marriage," she added.
Hasseniya was a child when she was married in Mauritania. By 16, she'd had her first child.
Child marriage can trigger immediate as well as long term consequences. Girls are more vulnerable to domestic violence and less likely to continue their studies. It also increases the risk of an early and unplanned pregnancy which in turn increases the risk of maternal complications.
"The practice can also isolate girls from family and friends and exclude them from participating in their communities, taking a heavy toll on their mental health and well-being," the report stated. It added that to off-set the impacts of the pandemic, and to end the practice by 2030, the targets that have been set out in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) ought to be accelerated.
Countries Under The Radar
The United Nations agency stated that levels of child marriage were highest in sub-Saharan Africa, where 35 per cent of young women were married before the age of 18, followed by South Asia, where nearly 30 per cent of women were married before they turned 18.
About 24 per cent of such instances were recorded in Latin America and the Caribbean. According to the report, the Middle East and North Africa had 17 per cent of child marriages, whereas Eastern Europe and Central Asia had about 12 per cent of child marriages.
According to UNICEF estimates, each year, at least 1.5 million girls under the age of 18 get married in India. The numbers make the country home to the largest number of child brides in the world — accounting for a third of the global total. Nearly 16 per cent of adolescent girls aged 15-19 are currently married.
Stating that although the prevalence of girls getting married before age 18 in India has declined from 47 per cent to 27 per cent between 2005-2006 and 2015-2016, it still stood high from a global perspective.
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