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How COVID-19 is impacting efforts to end child marriage across Africa

Schoolchildren stand together and look directly at the camera

Every October 11th, the world comes together to celebrate the International Day of the Girl Child. Whilst it is a day to celebrate global progress in protecting and promoting girls’ rights, this year, against the backdrop of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear to see how much work we have still to do. 

Recent projections from UNFPA/UNICEF show the impact of COVID-19 could potentially result in an additional 13 million child marriages taking place between 2020 and 2030 that could otherwise have been averted.

Child marriage is happening on every continent except Antarctica, in the United States alone, approximately 248,000 children were married between 2000 and 2010. It is a human rights violation that legitimizes abuse and denies girls’ autonomy under the guise of culture, honor, tradition, and religion. Regardless of where in the world she lives, child marriage deprives a girl of a future in which she can reach her full potential and furthers a dangerous cycle of oppression and harm.

The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating many of the complex factors that drive child marriage while simultaneously disrupting the work of the many organizations working at a community level around the world to end the practice. 

In Tanzania, where one in three girls is married before the age of 18, civil society acknowledges the importance of amending the law to bring about change. Francis Selasini from Network Against Female Genital Mutilation (NAFGEM) remains hopeful that the government “amends the Marriage Act to increase the minimum age of marriage to 18”

Child Development Foundation’s Euphomia Edward encourages all of us to speak out against this human rights violation

“Child marriage robs girls of a life free from violence and poverty. We must all use our voices to break the loud silence that continues to shroud this violence in order to end child marriage in Tanzania.”

In Kenya, COVID-19 triggered a national lockdown which left many girls cut off from support systems intended to protect them from violations. Agnes Leina from our partner, Illaramatak Community Concerns, told us that she’s worried about the impact of the pandemic: 

“I am worried about the future of some girls in Kenya because we put so much attention on COVID-19 as a country, but forgot to ensure that girls were also being protected from child marriage. I pray that these violations don’t go unnoticed and that perpetrators will be held to account.”

These concerns were echoed by Dorcus Parit from Hope Beyond Kenya, who was optimistic about progress in her community before the pandemic: 

“We had made some steady progress in ending child marriage in my community by encouraging girls to study and reporting perpetrators. But because of COVID-19, the safety net that schools were providing for many girls was removed leaving them at risk of child marriage”

Beldine Otieno, from our partner Sauti Ya Wanawake Pwani, working to end child marriage in Kwale, highlighted the importance of education when it comes to promoting girls’ rights. 

“Child marriage contravenes the fundamental rights of girls. It violates their rights to human dignity, reproductive health, personal liberty, private life, and free consent to marriage. Educating our girls and empowering them is one of the most powerful tools for preventing child marriage.” 

In Zambia, there has been an increase in child marriage and teenage pregnancy following the implementation of measures to control the spread of the virus. Besa Mwansa from Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA) encouraged Zambians to “take stock of this as a nation and offer solutions aimed at addressing these violations.” 

Equality Now remains committed to supporting our partners across Africa and around the world who are working to end child marriage. We are proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with lawyers and activists around the world who are working together to hold governments responsible for protecting and promoting the rights of girls and women by enshrining a minimum age of marriage of 18 in the law. Only together will we make equality reality.