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COVID-19 causing greatest surge of child marriages in 25 years

New analysis from Save the Children reveals a further 2.5 million girls are at risk of early marriage by 2025 because of the pandemic
01 October 2020

New analysis from Save the Children reveals a further 2.5 million girls are at risk of early marriage by 2025 because of the pandemic – the greatest surge in child marriage rates in 25 years.

Released today, Global Girlhood Report 2020: How COVID-19 is putting progress in peril, looks at the impact of COVID-19 on gender equality, revealing devastating effects. 

An estimated 500,000 more girls risk being forced into child marriages and as many as one million more are expected to become pregnant in 2020 as a consequence of the economic impacts of COVID-19 bearing down on poor families.

South Asia is expected to be hardest hit, with nearly 200,000 more girls at risk of child marriage in 2020.

Save the Children Australia’s Principal Advisor on Child Protection Karen Flanagan AM said it was time for an increased commitment to action. 

Every year, around 12 million girls are married – half a million more girls are now at risk this year alone—and these only are the ones we know about,” Ms Flanagan said.

“We believe this is the tip of the iceberg.

“The pandemic means more families are being pushed into poverty, forcing many girls to work to support their families, to go without food, to become the main caregivers for sick family members, and to drop out of school—with far less of a chance than boys of ever returning. 

“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 girls to marry men who are often much older.

 “These marriages violate girls’ rights and leave them at increased risk of depression, lifelong violence, disabilities, and even death—including from childbirth, given their bodies simply aren’t ready to bear children.

“78.6 million child marriages have been prevented over the last 25 years but progress to end the practice has slowed to a halt.”

Save the Children runs programmes and is campaigning to address the growing risk of gender-based violence against girls, including child marriage, while supporting girls’ rights to education, health and empowerment so they can participate in decision-making from the community to the global level.

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:

  1. 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. This includes putting adolescent girls at the centre of the Beijing+25 and Generation Equality decision-making and accountability processes.
  2. Act to address immediate and ongoing risks of gender-based violence: recognise 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.
  3. End child marriage and support girls who are already married to realise their rights—through law reform; national action plans that span various sectors like health, education, etc.; and working with communities to build support to change harmful gender norms that cause gender-based violence, including child marriage.
  4. Invest in girls now with new, not repackaged, investments to prevent the worst outcomes of COVID-19 for girls, and to enable progress and lasting change.
  5. Count every girl with improved data collection to put the girls who have been pushed furthest behind first, particularly in humanitarian contexts. This includes disaggregating data by sex, age-group and disability; conducting and building on analysis that looks at how gender and other identities—like class, race and disability—affect girls; and ensuring existing databases on child marriage, including child marriage in humanitarian contexts, fill this critical data gap in accountability to girls. 


For media inquiries contact Evan Schuurman on 0406 117 937 or Anna Jabour on 0403 322 992.

Notes to editors: 

  • 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 new projections on increasing risk of child marriage and adolescent pregnancy are based on the known correlation between child marriage and poverty and adolescent pregnancy and poverty. We took new World Bank estimates on the economic impact of COVID-19 expected in 2020 and used the known rate of child marriage and adolescent pregnancy among different wealth quintiles to see how the economic downturn would change the number of girls in each wealth quintile then applied the current rates of child marriage and adolescent pregnancy to those new numbers.
  • The number of marriages averted since 1995 was calculated based on the rate of marriage in 1995 and the assumption that this rate would have remained the same as populations grew over the next 25 years. The difference between the number that would have been reached had rates remained the same and the actual number of marriages that have occurred were counted as ‘marriages averted’. 

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