Conflict, Climate Shocks, COVID-19 Threaten Reducing Child Marriage

Conflict, Climate Shocks, COVID-19 Threaten Reducing Child Marriage

The world saw a steady decline in child marriage in the last decade, but multiple crises, including conflict, climate shocks, and the ongoing fallout from COVID-19, threaten to reverse hard-earned gains, according to a new analysis issued by UNICEF today.

“The world is engulfed by crises on top of crises that are crushing the hopes and dreams of vulnerable children, especially girls who should be students, not brides,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “Health and economic crises, escalating armed conflicts, and the ravaging effects of climate change are forcing families to seek a false sense of refuge in child marriage. We need to do everything in our power to ensure that their rights to an education and empowered lives are secured.”

Worldwide, an estimated 640 million girls and women alive today were married in childhood, or 12 million girls per year


The share of young women who married in childhood has declined from 21 percent to 19 percent since the last estimates were released five years ago. However, in spite of this progress, global reductions would have to be 20 times faster to meet the Sustainable Development Goal of ending child marriage by 2030.

Sub-Saharan Africa – which currently shoulders the second largest global share of child brides (20 percent), is over 200 years away from ending the practise at its current pace. Rapid population growth, alongside ongoing crises, looks set to increase the number of child brides, in contrast with the declines expected in the rest of the world, the analysis said.

Latin America and the Caribbean is also falling behind and on course to have the second-highest regional level of child marriage by 2030. After periods of steady progress, the Middle East and North Africa, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia have also stagnated.

Meanwhile, South Asia continues to drive global reductions and is on pace to eliminate child marriage in about 55 years, the report notes. However, the region remains home to nearly half (45 percent) of the world’s child brides.

India accounts for one-third of the global total


Girls who marry in childhood face immediate and lifelong consequences. They are less likely to remain in school, and face an increased risk of early pregnancy, in turn increasing the risk of child and maternal health complications and mortality. The practise 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.

The global prevalence of child marriage has fallen from 23 percent to 19 percent in the last 10 years


Worldwide, conflict, climate-related disasters, and the ongoing impacts of COVID-19—especially rising poverty, income shocks, and school dropout—are helping to increase the drivers of child marriage while also making it difficult for girls to access health care, education, social services, and community support that protect them from child marriage, UNICEF said.

As a result, girls living in fragile settings are twice as likely to become child brides as the average girl globally, the analysis notes. For every ten-fold increase in conflict-related deaths, there is a 7 percent increase in the number of child marriages. At the same time, extreme weather events driven by climate change increase a girl’s risk, with every 10 percent deviation in rainfall connected to around a 1 percent increase in the prevalence of child marriage.

Nearly half of child brides live in South Asia (45 percent), with the next largest share in sub-Saharan Africa (20 percent), followed by East Asia and the Pacific (15 percent) and Latin America and the Caribbean (9 per cent)

Precious gains to end child marriage in the past decade are also being threatened—or even reversed—by the ongoing impacts of COVID-19, the analysis warns. It is estimated that the pandemic has already cut the number of averted child marriages since 2020 by one-quarter.

“We’ve proven that progress to end child marriage is possible. It requires unwavering support for vulnerable girls and families,” added Russell. “We must focus on keeping girls in school and making sure they have economic opportunities.”


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