Tens of thousands of girls across Asia are forced into child marriage by desperate families plunged into poverty due to the coronavirus pandemic, as activists warn years of progress in tackling the practice are canceled.
Child marriage has long been practiced as part of the tradition in communities from the Indonesian archipelago to India, Pakistan and Vietnam, but their numbers are declining as many initiatives aim to raise awareness of its dangers and promote access to education and health services for women.
Those improvements are eroding as the impact of the virus leads to massive job losses, leaving parents to scramble to feed their families, experts say.
“All of the progress we’ve made over the past decade is really going to suffer,” says Shipra Jha, Asia Engagement Manager at the NGO Girls Not Brides.
“Child marriage is firmly rooted in gender inequality and patriarchal structures. What has happened is that it has worsened in the era of COVID, ”she adds.
Poverty, lack of education and insecurity are at the root of child marriage even in times of stability, so times of crisis exacerbate the problem, according to the NGO.
Globally, around 12 million girls marry before the age of 18 each year, according to the UN.
Girls Not Brides warns that unless urgent action is taken to address the economic and social impact of the virus, 13 million more child marriages will take place over the next decade.
In Asia, organizations report that forced unions have already started, estimating tens of thousands of people are already affected – although concrete data has yet to be gathered.
“There has been an increase in child marriage during this period of lockdown. There is endemic unemployment, job losses. Families are barely able to make ends meet, so they think it’s best to marry their young daughters, ”says Rolee Singh, who runs India’s“ 1 Step 2 Stop Child Marriage ”Campaign.
“We’ve also seen children getting married because the other party offers money or some kind of help in return. These families do not understand the concept of trafficking – it is a worrying trend, ”says activist Singh.
Muskaan, 15, says she is forced to marry the 21-year-old neighbor by her mother and father, street cleaners in the Indian city of Varanasi WHO have six more children to feed.
“My parents are poor, what else could they have done? I fought as much as I could but I finally had to give in, ”explains the teenager in tears.
Save the Children has previously warned that violence against girls and the risk of forced unions, especially among minors, “could become more of a threat than the virus itself.”
And while education has been hailed as the central tenet in the fight against child marriage, activists warn that with lockdowns forcing hundreds of millions of people out of school, girls in the regions the poorest in the world will be the most affected.
Earlier this month, 275 former world leaders, education experts and economists urged governments and organizations such as the World Bank to ensure that the fallout from the coronavirus does not create a ‘COVID generation … deprived of their education and a fair chance in life. ”
“Many of these children are teenage girls for whom being in school is the best defense against forced marriage and the best hope for a life richer in opportunity,” said an open letter signed by dignitaries including former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, former UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy and former Prime Ministers including Pakistani Shaukat Aziz and Britons Gordon Brown and Tony Blair .
Jha, who is based in Delhi, agrees that economic pressure is part of the problem, but insists that child marriage is complex, especially in Asia where there are fears that the closure of closed schools means that adolescents idlers turn to each other and damage the reputation of the family.
“The biggest fear for families is that (teenage girls) will become close to a boy, start exploring their sexuality, or become pregnant. Honor is closely linked to this situation… It’s a huge thing, ”she adds.
She adds that the problem has worsened as governments shift resources from key development areas such as education, family planning and reproductive health to fight the virus.
Indonesia’s family planning agency has warned that the country, which already has 270 million people, could experience a huge baby boom early next year due to school closures and dwindling numbers. access to contraception.
At 18, Lia has already married twice. Her first marriage was forced upon her after being seen alone with the man – who was not a parent – taboo in the conservative region of West Sulawesi in Indonesia where she lives.
The community insisted she marry the man despite a three-decade age gap.
She escaped this unfortunate situation and found love, but her career dreams were once again put on the back burner.
With little access to family planning counseling, she became pregnant while in confinement. Her family insisted she marry the 21-year-old father.
“I used to dream of becoming a flight attendant,” recalls the teenager, who asked that her real name not be used.
“But she failed and ended up in the kitchen,” interrupts her new husband Randi, who has not declared their marriage to the authorities.
Indonesia, which has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world according to UNICEF, last year raised the legal age of marriage from 16 to 19 for both sexes in order to tackle the problem.
But there are loopholes – local religious courts can approve juvenile unions.
Indonesian Islamic authorities officially authorized more than 33,000 child marriages between January and June of this year, compared to a total of 22,000 for all of 2019, according to the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection.
Indian leader Narendra Modi has also said the country will raise the age of marriage from 18 to 21, but Girls Not Brides says such measures are difficult to enforce and fail to address root causes.
In Vietnam, the legal age for marriage is 18, but UNICEF says one in 10 girls is already married. Among ethnic groups, this figure is almost double.
Local charity Blue Dragon says it has seen girls as young as 14 getting married and child unions have been on the rise since schools were closed due to the pandemic.
On May 15, who is from the northern hill tribes of the Hmong, married her 25-year-old construction worker boyfriend in June after becoming pregnant as the virus swept the country.
Her parents could not afford to keep her and the baby, so she moved a six hour drive to her husband’s family farm.
“They are farmers and they couldn’t earn enough for us,” she explains.
Now, instead of doing her homework, she does the housework and helps harvest the crops.
“I don’t think much about my future,” she admits.
UNICEF says ending child marriage will help break intergenerational cycles of poverty.
He says, “Empowered and educated girls are better able to feed and care for their children, which leads to smaller, healthier families. When girls are allowed to be girls, everyone wins.