Child marriage and COVID-19: What happens when no one’s looking?

Aug 24, 2020
A World Vision report predicts a sharp increase in violence against children and child marriage, as a result of COVID-19. At least four million more girls could be married in the next two years. Here’s why that’s happening. 

The virus claimed Aishata’s* mother, father and two uncles. The sixteen-year-old girl asked village elders to bury her parents in her backyard. 

“I wanted to sit by their graves and mourn them every night,” she remembers. 

It’s a devastating picture. A daughter, crouched by the newly created mounds of earth, tears on her young face. Soon afterward, an aunt arranged a marriage for Aishata to a 40-year-old man. Her aunt collected the dowry. 

Lethal illnesses can force families like Aishata’s to make choices they never imagined. She had several younger siblings, all of whom required financial support to stay alive. 

Regardless of the reasons, the aunt’s decision changed Aishata’s life forever.

a young girl from Sierra Leone sits graveside16-year-old Aishata tends her parents graves. Photo: World Vision Staff

“I did not agree to the marriage, because I was young and not the age for marriage,” she said, bitterly. “I wanted to continue my schooling when classes started again...” 

But without the backing of teachers, principals or community workers, Aishata felt powerless to stop her own marriage. Schools were closed during lockdown. Teachers were at home with their own families. Local businesses and community centres were out of reach. Who had an eye out for Aishata, or other children in crisis? 

When school finally resumed, Aishata was not at her desk. 

She had become the youngest of up to four wives that a man is entitled to, according to some traditions in her region of Sierra Leone. 

When safety nets are torn 

The virus which claimed Aishata’s future was not COVID-19, but Ebola. The two diseases have a lot in common. Both are extremely contagious. Both claim lives. And both illnesses force families into quarantine to prevent spread. Risks are higher in fragile places where prevention measures and healthcare systems are weak.

Like Ebola, COVID-19 renders millions of the world’s most vulnerable children nearly helpless, as the community support networks they typically rely on fall to pieces. 

“Millions more children are at risk under the COVID-19 lockdown,” says Simon Lewchuk, co-author of the recent World Vision report, A Perfect Storm. “We predict a major spike in the cases of children experiencing physical, emotional and sexual violence.” 

For too many children, the violence will have an impact long after the Coronavirus is eradicated, says Lewchuk. 

“For a child bride, for instance, things won’t simply go back to normal once the lockdown ends,” he says.
“She could be subject to violence for many years to come.”

When a pattern emerges

World Vision is applying many of its learnings from Ebola to the current global pandemic. Staff have witnessed the brutal implications for children when community networks are torn apart. 

A wooden door shut closed with a large padlock.
Around the world, schools like this one in Mithapukur, Bangladesh, are closed in an effort stop the spread of COVID-19. But for many children schools are an essential lifeline and protective environment. Photo: Batel Sarker

During a crisis like a pandemic, children can be shut in with their abusers, who can become more stressed as their livelihoods disappear and money gets tighter. 

Conditions can be hot and cramped, causing tempers to flare and physical and emotional violence against children. 

Simon Lewchuk is having trouble sleeping at night just thinking about it. “I fear that too many children are in trouble behind closed doors,” he says. “And with many countries under lockdown, many teachers and community workers aren’t able to provide the help they normally would.” 

The report notes that:
  • Up to 85 million more girls and boys worldwide may be exposed to physical, sexual and/or emotional violence as a result of COVID-19.
  • Many of the 13 million child marriages predicted will occur in the years immediately following the COVID-19 crisis.
  • At least four million more girls will be married in the next two years, more than usual because of COVID-19.

When patterns are broken 

School and community programs provide children with routine, predictability and a regular set of friendly faces. When that safety is broken, children’s reality can become chaotic and unpredictable—particularly if they live in a fragile or unstable region like Syria, South Sudan, or the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Like in Canada, parents in the world’s most dangerous places do their best to keep children safe and occupied. But their resources are more limited. “Shelter in place” quarantines may not be enforced locally, meaning children may be out in the community. A parent’s eyes can’t be everywhere at once. 

All-too-often, this leads to sexual violence against girls and boys. Girls are the primary victims. 

When schools are closed 

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, 12-year-old Julienne* was sexually assaulted by a man she didn’t know while out of school during COVID-19 lockdown. 

Watch Julienne's dad share her story in this video:

“With schools closed, I saw that children were becoming idle in our town,” says Julienne’s father. “So, I took them to Kantine (where the family farmed) to keep them busy with field work.” 

It’s the kind of thing so many Canadian parents have done over the past few months – look for outdoor tasks to keep children engaged and tire them out a little. Except Julienne’s assignment didn’t result in a day of yardwork or climbing trees safely in the backyard. 

Julienne was taking a break with some friends, watching TV at one of the local houses. Another girl called her outside. She took Julienne to a nearby construction site, where the man was standing. The man pulled Julienne into the unfinished house, gagged her with a scarf so she could not scream, and attacked her.

“Perhaps my little girl would not have been raped, if she was going to school,” cried Julienne’s father. 

Lives changed forever 

Whether a child is raped in her community or within marriage, the trauma can change her life forever. World Vision is expecting to see more of that devastation than usual because of COVID-19.

Early marriage can come with a whole set of crippling effects. Girls forced into wedlock typically leave school to serve in their husband’s homes. They leave the support of their own families to enter a house of people who are often strangers. 

Pregnancy comes earlier than is safe – often, long before a girl’s developing body is ready to carry and deliver a child. For girl brides, the maternal mortality rate is heartbreakingly high.

The COVID-19 factor 

The Coronavirus is likely to worsen this kind of tragedy, says World Vision’s child marriage expert, Erica Hall. 

“When you have any crisis like a conflict, disaster, or pandemic, rates of child marriage go up,” Hall said recently.  

Hall emphasized that families don’t do this because they’re uncaring, or don’t love their daughters. Often, it’s a desperate last resort, when the money has run out and loved ones – including the daughter herself – are starving. 

“It really is a survival mechanism,” she says. “Parents aren’t doing it maliciously – they just don’t see any alternative.” 

Hall says there’s already been anecdotal evidence of a rise in child marriages in South Africa, Afghanistan and India, where World Vision recently worked with police to stop nine child marriages after calls were made to helplines.

a young Indian girl stands in front of a shelter
17-year-old Amina is part of a Girl Power group in her community, where she is learning about girls' rights and how to advocate for herself and other girls facing crises like child marriage, human trafficking and more. Groups like hers have worked with World Vision India staff to stop nine child marriages during the lockdown in India. Photo: Neola D'Souza

She indicated the possibility that some families could use the lockdown to conceal child marriages, which are illegal in most countries. But Hall expects the real spike will come later, as families battle with the economic fallout of the Coronavirus.

Reaching out to help 

World Vision learned a great deal from Ebola about how to reach vulnerable children during lockdowns. Teams are using all these measures now. And in many cases, they’re working.

Simon Lewchuk says technology has been extremely helpful. “World Vision’s staff on the ground knew many of these children personally, before the Coronavirus hit,” he explains. “There was already a tremendous trust there. And those relationships are continuing, even during quarantine.”

Staff are communicating virtually with children and families, through apps like WhatsApp. In many regions, almost everyone owns a cell phone. It can be a lifeline for children under lockdown, as shown in India when children can call helplines. 

“Staff are supporting parents and caregivers with things like cash transfers for food and other necessities, so the financial need for child marriage could be less likely to arise.”

Lewchuk also notes the importance of advocating for child welfare and protection workers as essential staff in all countries, along with doctors, nurses and grocery store clerks. 

World Vision sees the protection of girls and boys during the COVID-19 lockdown and afterward as essential. Staff are committed to staying close with children and families, even from a distance.

“Sure, my kids are bored during the lockdown. But they’re not living in fear of something like child marriage. It’s just not even on their radar,” says Lewchuk.

World Vision is committed to keeping children in the communities we serve on our radar – especially when we can’t see them with our own eyes. 

World Vision research warns an additional four million girls are at risk of child marriage in the next two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. These children face dangerous threats, but they have incredible strength and resiliency to overcome these dark challenges to survive, recover and build a new future. Learn how you can help children move from victim to survivor --- and from survivor to overcomer.

*name changed to protect their identity.

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