“At that moment, all my dreams were destroyed.” This is how 16-year-old Indian Sunita describes how she felt when she learned she would be forced to marry and drop out of school at 12. Now a girls’ rights activist in her community, she gave her testimony to the non-governmental organization Save the Children.
Each year, 12 million girls like Sunita see their childhood cut short because they are forced to marry too early. This scenario has improved, and over the past decade, the proportion of women hired before the age of 18 worldwide has increased from 1 in 4 to 1 in 5.
But now the downward trend is threatened by the pandemic. A study by UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) estimates that the health crisis will push 10 million girls to marry early over the next decade. This number will be added to the 100 million already forecast for the period, at the risk of reversing a 25-year progression of constant decline in this index.
The issue has become a matter of concern for several entities, including Brazil – the fourth country in the world with more cases – and even the World Bank, which has already estimated that child marriage will lose trillions of dollars. dollars to developing countries by 2030.
According to the NGO World Vision, the increase in the number of child marriages has already been felt since last year. From March to December 2020, its teams received more than twice as many calls to act on such cases as during the same period in 2019.
Save the Children reported that the pandemic has resulted in an increase of at least 1 million pregnant girls by 2020 – one of the main drivers of early marriage, which affects women far more than men.
Of the 12 million girls who marry each year, 2 million are under the age of 15. “And these are just the ones we know. We think this is the tip of the iceberg, ”says the organization. As many unions are unofficial – and this informal activity is more important in Latin America and the Caribbean than in other regions – the real numbers are likely to be much higher.
In addition to directly affecting people’s health, epidemics often have a disproportionate effect on women and girls, says Rita Soares, director of learning and impact at Girls not Brides.
“Many of the complex factors that promote child marriage in stable environments are exacerbated in emergencies, when family and community structures deteriorate,” he explains. “A pandemic like this presents unique challenges that can increase the number of child marriages in the acute and rebuilding phases.”
There are several mechanisms by which the health crisis contributes to the problem. School closures are essential, because education is clearly proven to be one of the best antidotes to early marriage.
Statistically, the longer a girl attends school, the lower the risk of getting married before the age of 18. It is estimated that 1.6 billion children worldwide have had to drop out of school because of Covid-19, and 11 million girls could drop out of school by 2021. Many will never return.
The experience of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa from 2013 to 2016 is that the more classes are suspended, the less likely girls are to return to school later, especially if they have not. had access to distance education.
“The Ebola epidemic has led to an increase in child labor, sexual abuse and teenage pregnancies. In Sierra Leone, for example, teenage pregnancy cases have more than doubled, ”says Soares.
Additionally, out-of-school children spend more time at home unsupervised, being exposed to abuse and sexual activity in general, which can lead to unwanted pregnancies.
The suspension of care in sexual and reproductive health services during quarantine, making it difficult to access contraceptives, also favors teenage pregnancies.
Another important factor in this equation is the economic crisis resulting from the pandemic, with the shutdown of non-essential activities. “The girl’s marriage relieves the family from economic stress in two ways: the prospect of receiving a dowry and having fewer mouths to feed,” the World Bank document states.
“The economic insecurity caused by the recession in already vulnerable communities is forcing families to marry their youngest daughters, seen as a financial burden rather than as potential workers who will earn wages.”
In communities where the groom pays a dowry to the bride’s family, the incentive is even greater. When it is the other way around, there are two scenarios. In general, marriage for girls is not recommended. But there are cases when parents prefer to send their very young daughters to marriage, as the dowry tends to be lower the younger the girl is.
Getting married early often changes the course of a woman’s life. Studies show that they are less likely to negotiate safe sex with their partner, which makes them susceptible to contracting sexually transmitted infections and becoming pregnant.
Pregnant women who are too young are at greater risk of health complications and even of not surviving the birth of the baby – death in childbirth is the leading cause of death in girls aged 15-19.
Because they have to take care of their homes and families, many of them drop out of school and fail to build careers. They are also more exposed to domestic violence and femicide. “Child marriage helps perpetuate the cycle of poverty and has physical, emotional and psychological consequences,” says Soares.
The consequences are not limited to the women affected. Society as a whole is losing out, according to a 2017 World Bank study. “Early marriage undermines efforts to alleviate poverty and to achieve equity and economic growth. Ending this practice is not only the morally right thing to do, but also the best decision from an economic point of view, ”explains one of the authors.
According to Save the Children, South Asia, Central and West Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean are the regions most at risk of an increase in the number of child marriages as part of the pandemic.
In Brazil, as in the world, the causes that lead to child marriage are closely related to family pressure for a moral problem, loss of virginity or pregnancy during a relationship, and economic factors, when marriage. is taxed as a means of bringing in more income. , to be just another working person, underlines Itamar Gonçalves, Advocacy Manager for Childhood Brasil. The non-profit association works for the protection of children and adolescents.
The country, however, does not have continuous monitoring of the issue. The last national survey on the demography and health of children and women was carried out in 2006, which makes monitoring difficult. With the figures of that time, Brazil occupies fourth place in the absolute ranking, with 3 million women aged 20 to 24 who married before the age of 18, or 36% of the total of married women in this bracket. of age. In the lead are India, Bangladesh and Nigeria.
When we look at the data by year of civil status released by the IBGE, which allows us to see the proportion of marriages of women under 18 compared to the total for each year, we see a decrease between 2015 and 2019 .
Marriage of children under 16 is prohibited in Brazil, but the legislation is recent, passed in 2019. Until that year, it was possible to marry to avoid criminal penalties for rape of a woman. vulnerable person or due to pregnancy. Today, young people between the ages of 16 and 18 can join if they are authorized to do so by their parents or through legal proceedings.
Brazil does not have a government program to deal with the issue, according to the children’s officer, which for him is part of the necessary solutions for child marriage. Gonçalves also stresses the need to give visibility to the theme both at home and in schools, through sex education, in addition to the “naked and raw on paper” law.
For him, moreover, the legislation should completely prohibit marriage before the age of 18, without exception. Finally, a program that really empowers girls in carrying out their life projects is also a key element, as well as raising awareness among the population. “It’s seen as something marginal, as if it’s not a problem in our society,” says Gonçalves. “There is a great lack of knowledge of the legislation and the consequences for children and adolescents.
Ending child marriage by 2030 is one of the UN’s sustainable development goals. In addition to laws and public policies to protect children, solutions include ensuring education and sexual and reproductive health, carrying out awareness-raising campaigns, and including children and adolescents themselves in programs. actions.
The predicted worsening of pandemic rates is a likelihood, but it doesn’t have to be a fate, according to UNICEF. “Successful large-scale programs can delay the age at which young people marry and halve the additional number of child marriages,” the organization explains.