These days, we often talk about the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and a struggling global economy. What many are not discussing is the advent of another sinister pandemic: evidence is showing an alarming increase in all forms of gender-based violence during these unprecedented times. For example, as economies shut down and stay-at-home orders become our new normal, an unspoken and damaging effect of the pandemic is a spike in child marriages globally. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic is estimated to disrupt the efforts made so far to end child marriage, and to result in 13 million more girls forced into early marriages between 2020 and 2030. Evidence of an increase in child marriages is already emerging from places such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi and Nepal.
The COVID-19 health crisis has exacerbated some of the main social and economic drivers of early marriage, such as limited access to education, early pregnancies and poverty. COVID-19-related school closures have interrupted the education of approximately 1.6 billion children worldwide. Evidence from the 2013 Ebola outbreak shows that the probability of returning to school greatly diminishes the longer girls are kept out. This leads to child marriages, as the practice relieves the girl’s family from economic stress in two ways: the prospect of receiving a dowry and the relief from having fewer mouths to feed. Also, one million more girls risk becoming pregnant due to the lockdown measures and disrupted access to reproductive health centers and services given the abrupt halt of interventions by governments, civil society and/or NGOS. To avoid the stigma associated with out of wedlock pregnancies, families may be more inclined to marry their daughters. The economic strain caused by the recession on already vulnerable communities and the loss of family income is additionally forcing families to marry off their young girls, perceiving them as financial burdens rather than potential wage earners. The regions expected to be the most affected in the next few years are South Asia, followed by West and Central Africa and finally, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Women, Business and the Law analyzes how laws and regulations, including violence against women and marriage legislation, affect women’s employment and entrepreneurship in 190 economies. Recent data collected by the team show that the majority of countries (168 out of 190) legally define the age at which girls can marry without any type of consent above the age of 18. However, in 80% of them (134 countries) girls can get married at a younger age with the consent of their parents, a judge or another authority. Furthermore, in 55 countries, the marriage of a minor contracted in violation of the law is not considered void nor voidable. Additionally, 82 countries do not penalize individuals for entering or authorizing early marriages.
While a majority still allow early marriages, in recent years, numerous countries have enacted legal protections against child marriages by setting the legal age of marriage at 18 and removing all possible exceptions. In 2017 Guatemala amended its Civil Code, which previously allowed 16-year-olds to enter marriage with judicial authorization. The same year, Trinidad and Tobago adopted the Miscellaneous Provisions Marriage Act to set the legal age of marriage at 18 years. The new law removes all exceptions to the legal age of marriage, criminalizes early marriages and establishes any marriages below the legal age as void. More recently, in 2019, Uzbekistan raised the legal age of marriage for girls from 17 to 18 years. The same year, Côte d’Ivoire abolished all special dispensations to marriage under the legal age. Before the reform, the law allowed girls to get married before 18 with the public prosecutor’s consent. Similarly, in December 2019, Antigua and Barbuda amended its marriage legislation to remove provisions allowing girls to get married as early as 15 years with parental consent and to set the legal age of marriage at 18 years.
How are countries currently addressing the challenges associated with rising child marriages due to COVID-19? In Cambodia, the country’s Ministry of Women's Affairs (MOWA) has targeted ethnic minority provinces to conduct child marriage prevention awareness campaigns. The Bangladesh National Human Rights Commission has issued advisory letters to the Ministry of Women & Children Affairs to strengthen monitoring mechanisms to prevent child marriages. In Kenya, the President has launched an investigation following increasing reports of violence against women and girls, namely rape, domestic violence, female genital mutilation and child marriages. And in Ethiopia, the government recently intervened to successfully rescue 500 girls before they were married off.
Child marriage is not only a violation of girls’ human rights and their children’s, but also represents a substantial economic burden for countries. Improving girls’ educational attainment and health, as well as increased earnings, decision-making power and control over their reproductive rights are few of the positive consequences of ending child marriage, together with a positive impact on the reduction of maternal and infant mortality, and of intimate partner violence. Keeping girls out of early marriages would benefit countries and societies as a whole, boosting their economic growth and stability and saving the global economy trillions of dollars.
As governments take measures to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on the prevalence of child marriages within their borders, consolidated efforts from various actors need to be maximized to successfully respond to this harmful practice against women and girls. By presenting a comprehensive overview of the most diverse and advanced measures countries have taken so far to address this challenge, Women, Business and the Law will continue to measure and recognize the efforts undertaken to end child marriage.