10 million additional girls at risk of child marriage due to COVID-19 – UNICEF | UNICEF Canada: For Every Child Skip to main content
Publication Date: 2021/03/08

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TORONTO/NEW YORK, 8 March 2021 Ten million additional child marriages may occur before the end of the decade, threatening years of progress in reducing the practice, according to a new analysis released by UNICEF today.

COVID-19: A threat to progress against child marriage – released on International Women’s Day – warns that school closures, economic stress, service disruptions, pregnancy, and parental deaths due to the pandemic are putting the most vulnerable girls at increased risk of child marriage.

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, 100 million girls were at risk of child marriage in the next decade, despite significant reductions in several countries in recent years. In the last ten 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, a gain that is now under threat.

“COVID-19 is threatening the fragile gains made to advance girls' rights. Shuttered schools, isolation from friends, and rising poverty have added fuel to a fire the world was already struggling to put out. International Women’s Day reminds us that we can and we must extinguish child marriage,” said Rowena Pinto, Chief Program Officer at UNICEF Canada. “As Canada implements its international COVID-19 response, it is vital to ensure that protecting girls from child marriage remains a firm government commitment, and that special attention is given to girls in settings of fragility, crisis and conflict, who are particularly at risk of losing their childhoods."

Girls who marry in childhood face immediate and lifelong consequences. They are more likely to experience domestic violence and less likely to remain in school. Child marriage increases the risk of early and unplanned pregnancy, in turn increasing the risk of maternal complications and mortality. 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.

COVID-19 is profoundly affecting the lives of girls. Pandemic-related travel restrictions and physical distancing make it difficult for girls to access the health care, social services and community support that protect them from child marriage, unwanted pregnancy and gender-based violence. As schools remain closed, girls are more likely to drop out of education and not return. Job losses and increased economic insecurity may also force families to marry their daughters to ease financial burdens.

Worldwide, an estimated 650 million girls and women alive today were married in childhood, with about half of those occurring in Bangladesh, Brazil, Ethiopia, India and Nigeria. To off-set the impacts of COVID-19 and end the practice by 2030 – the target set out in the Sustainable Development Goals – progress must be significantly accelerated.

“One year into the pandemic, immediate action is needed to mitigate the toll on girls and their families,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “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.”

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Notes to Editors

The projections presented are the result of a statistical model that is built on existing information on the rates and demographics of child marriage, as well as historical information on the effects of educational disruption, economic shocks, and programme efficacy in countries where most child marriages worldwide occur. For further details on the data, see the technical notes in the report here.    

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About UNICEF

UNICEF is the world’s leading humanitarian organization focused on children. We work in the most challenging areas to provide protection, healthcare and immunizations, education, safe water and sanitation and nutrition. As part of the United Nations, our unrivaled reach spans more than 190 countries and territories, ensuring we are on the ground to help the most disadvantaged children. While part of the UN system, UNICEF relies entirely on voluntary donations to finance our life-saving work. Please visit unicef.ca and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

For further information:

Emily O’Connor Communications Manager EOconnor@unicef.ca 416 482-6552 x8866 / 647-500-4230
Marie-Claude Rouillard Communications Manager MRouillard@unicef.ca (514) 288-5134 ext 8425 / 514-232-4510