Sudha was a healthy 16-year-old student in South India. Now she is dead. It was not COVID-19 that killed her – not directly anyway. She was found hanging in the village of Ranganathapura at the end of last month, and died shortly afterwards at a nearby hospital. Sudha committed suicide, after being forced to marry a relative. Allegedly, police initially attempted to hush up the case, but eventually the parents of both the bride and the groom were arrested. The groom is still at large. The government body tasked with the prevention of child marriage told local press that the marriage remained unnoticed by the authorities for longer than usual because the responsible officer was not working, due to India’s coronavirus lockdown. If the marriage had come to the attention of the authorities earlier, maybe Sudha would still be alive.
Each year, 12 million female children across the world are married. That is nearly one girl every three seconds. Countries in West and Central Africa as well as South Asia have the highest prevalence of child marriage. In Niger, for example, 76 percent of women between the age of 20 and 24 were first married before they were 18 years old. In Bangladesh, it is 59 percent. While there are differences in prevalence within and across countries, child marriage remains a universal challenge, and occurs across regions, cultures, and religions.
The practice of marrying children is appalling and a grave violation of human rights, not least because it often amounts to giving men a license to rape, to put it bluntly. Sex with a child who is not yet competent to consent to sexual acts is rape, plain and simple, and calling the child a “wife” or “husband” does not change that. Child marriage undermines the aspirations of those who are just at the beginning of their lives, mostly girls, and robs them of the chance to realize their potential. Becoming a wife typically marks the end of a girl’s education, cementing her dependence on men, and increases exposure to the risks of domestic violence, early pregnancy, and contracting HIV.
The causes of child marriage are complex and vary across communities. Main driving factors include gender inequality, antiquated cultural norms, and poverty. In many parts of the world, girls are not seen as potential wage earners, but rather as a financial burden, which marriage transfers to the husband’s family. Giving a daughter away in marriage leaves the family with one less mouth to feed, one less child to educate, and one less body to cloth. The freed-up financial resources can then be invested in the education of sons, which is seen as more worthwhile. In Tanzania, for example, girls from the poorest 20 percent of households are more than twice as likely to be married before the age of 18 than girls from the richest 20 percent of households. Marrying a girl early further reduces the supposed “risk” of the girl engaging in relationships or even becoming pregnant outside of wedlock, which would be seen as bringing shame or dishonor to the family, and make it harder for her to find a husband.
According to a 2018 UNICEF report, there has been a decline in the global rate of child marriage, with an estimated 25 million child marriages averted in the past decade, largely due to significant progress in South Asia. On the legal front too there have been positive developments, from the Tanzanian activist Rebeca Gyumi winning a landmark case against her government to raise the age of marriage for girls from 14 to 18, to child marriage being outlawed in the US states of Delaware and New Jersey. A few days ago, however, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) warned that the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to deliver a devastating blow to efforts to eradicate child marriage.
During the Ebola virus outbreak in 2014-16, West Africa saw a sharp increase in child marriage. Loss of income and employment made it more difficult for families to afford the school fees for their children, and girls were almost always the first to drop out of school, because of discriminatory socio-cultural norms. Many of these girls were then married off to further ease financial burden. With COVID-19, we are likely to see similar effects on a global scale. Millions of girls are currently out of school, families are struggling with increased economic hardship, and programs to end child marriage face significant disruptions. The UNFPA estimates that the result will be 13 million additional cases of child marriage over the next ten years.
To avert such a setback, it is now more important than ever to address the root causes of child marriage – poverty and harmful gender norms – which also sustain a range of other social evils that we already see being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, from domestic violence to female genital mutilation. Global institutions such as the World Bank Group and IMF, which are playing a critical role in helping countries mitigate the devastating impact of the pandemic, have pledged support for low-income countries in the tens of billions of dollars. That money, however, pales in comparison with the trillions the US, Europe, China, and Japan are pumping into their economies, and much more needs to be done to assist poor families in low-income countries, who will be hit the hardest by the pandemic. National governments, on their part, must now be even more vigilant in enforcing laws against child marriage, work to minimize disruptions in primary and secondary education, with particular attention to girls, and strengthen efforts to raise awareness about the harmful effects of child marriage. If mitigating steps are not taken immediately, in a concerted effort by all stakeholders, the pandemic will be a catastrophe for girls.
This article was co-authored with Chioma Nwosu. Versions of it were published under the following titles:
“A license to rape,” News Ghana (Ghana, 4 May 2020)
“Covid-19 set to increase the scourge of child marriage,” Mail & Guardian (South Africa, 4 May 2020)
“Pandemic threatens to put more girls at risk,” Cape Argus (South Africa, 5 May 2020)
“Pandemic of child marriage,” The Star (South Africa, 6 May 2020)
“A license to rape,” Blueprint (Nigeria, 9 May 2020)
“A license to rape,” Sunday Telegraph (Nigeria, 10 May 2020)
“A license to rape,” Dhaka Tribune (Bangladesh, 12 May 2020)