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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. 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.
Despite significant reductions in several countries in recent years, 100 million girls are at risk of child marriage in the next decade. 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. This was the situation before the COVID-19 outbreak.
COVID-19 is profoundly affecting the lives of girls. Pandemic-related travel restrictions and physical distancing make it difficult for girls to access the healthcare, social services and community support that protect them from child marriage, unwanted pregnancies 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. The impact of COVID-19 lockdowns is putting 10 million additional most vulnerable girls at increased risk of child marriage. These child marriages may occur before the end of the decade, threatening years of progress in reducing the practice.
UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore shared that the world can and must extinguish child marriage. We need to remind ourselves of what these girls have to lose if we do not act urgently – their education, their health, and their futures. 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.
UNICEF works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. Across more than 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone.