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Belkis, 15 years old, holds her one-year-old son in the house where she lives with her mother, two sisters, and one brother. Belkis was married when she was 13 years old to a man who threatened to commit suicide if the family didn’t agree to the marriage. After 14 months, her husband sent her home; he no longer financially supports her or the baby. Belkis fears her family’s home will be washed away by river erosion by the end of the year. March 30, 2015. © 2015 Omi for Human Rights Watch

The world was making real progress toward ending child marriage – until the pandemic. Adolescent pregnancies were falling too, especially among girls under age 15 – until the pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the inadequate response of governments has severely damaged or threatened a generation of progress on girls’ rights. A new report by Save the Children says the pandemic’s economic fallout will force 90 to 117 million more children into poverty, putting girls at greater risk of child marriage and adolescent pregnancies than in the past 30 years.

Save the Children found that half a million more girls are at risk of child marriage by the end of 2020, and 2.5 million by 2025 due to the pandemic. (That’s in addition to the already 12 million girls estimated to be forced into marriage in 2020.) The Covid-19 pandemic is a crisis like no other because it has led to an unprecedented near-global closure of schools, affecting a staggering 800 million girls. A shocking number of these girls are at risk of being forced into marriages or may become pregnant.

Human Rights Watch has been documenting the causes – and consequences – of child marriage for well over a decade, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Our research shows child marriage and resulting early pregnancies - both a consequence and a driver of lack of access to education - can drastically increase in times of crisis. In a crisis, girls are often taken out of school, which normally should provide a safe space, so child marriage and early pregnancy are often the result. In many countries, girls who are married, pregnant, or already parents are actively discouraged or even banned outright from continuing studies. This needs to change – now.

Governments should adopt comprehensive national strategies for combating child marriage – and reactivate them if they have them – and set the minimum age of marriage at 18 with no exceptions. National Covid-19 response plans should make preventing child marriage and ensuring that girls, married or not, have access to sexual and reproductive health services, including to contraceptive supplies, key priorities. Schools and governments should monitor the gender breakdown of children who return – and when schools do reopen, reach out and re-engage all missing children. Governments should require schools to welcome and support married, pregnant, and parenting girls back to school to help them keep their futures on track.


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