The coronavirus crisis has caused millions to lose their jobs and sources of income. Reports of shuttered businesses and a global recession have headlined the news since the virus first appeared in Wuhan, China. The World Bank has predicted that 24 million fewer people will escape poverty in Southeast Asia this year as a result of the pandemic. Furthermore, in a worst-case scenario, an additional 11 million people will fall into poverty, defined as living on US$5.50 or less per day.
“Without concerted action, families barely getting by could be pushed into poverty, and the poorest families could face levels of deprivation that have not been seen for decades,” said Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
Children and girls from impoverished families burdened by the unprecedented economic shocks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic could be at risk of child marriage, abuse and exploitation.
World Vision, an international children’s charity stated that four million girls are at risk of child marriage in the next two years as a result of the new coronavirus pandemic. Campaigners have warned that the crisis could undo decades of work to end the practice. The charity said that deepening poverty caused by loss of livelihoods is likely to drive many families to marry off their daughters early.
"When you have any crisis like a conflict, disaster or pandemic – rates of child marriage go up," said Erica Hall, World Vision’s child marriage expert.
Other than that, the fact that schools were suspended during COVID-19 lockdowns over virus fears also exacerbated child marriage risks.
"258 million children and youth were entirely excluded from education, with poverty as the main obstacle to access," noted a United Nations (UN) report in 2018. The problem worsened with the arrival of the coronavirus crisis, which saw over 90 percent of the global student population affected by school closures, the UN stated in its report.
The crisis is also making it more difficult for girls to access reproductive health services which could lead to a rise in teenage pregnancies and increased pressure to marry.
Child Marriage In ASEAN
Every year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18. That is 23 girls every minute, according to Girls Not Brides – an international organisation with the mission to end child marriage throughout the world.
The organisation noted that some of the main reasons that fuel and sustain the practice of child marriage include poverty, lack of education, cultural practices and insecurity.
Child marriage is not unheard of in Southeast Asia.
Girls Not Brides stated that 35 percent of Lao girls are married before they turn 18 years old, while nine percent are married before the age of 15. Whereas in neighbouring Vietnam, 11 percent of girls are married before the age of 18. And over in Indonesia, 14 percent of girls are married before 18 and one percent are married before their 15th birthday.
Nevertheless, the actual figures for child brides across ASEAN could be higher as some couples do not register their marriages.
Child marriages typically happen in rural areas where impoverished families live. Where poverty is acute, giving a daughter in marriage allows parents to reduce their financial burden.
“In communities where economic transactions are integral to the marriage process, a dowry or ‘bride price’ is often welcome income for poor families. Families sometimes marry their daughters at a younger age to avoid more expensive dowries which the marriage of older girls often demands,” explains Girls Not Brides on their website.
Unfortunately, most times – child brides who tend to drop out of school before they get married remain poor even after marriage. Without a formal education, they are less able to earn an income to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.
Girls Not Brides also noted that education is a powerful strategy to end child marriage. The longer a girl stays in school, the less likely she is to be married before the age of 18 and bear children during her teenage years. But the pandemic has resulted in shuttered schools in numerous countries and observers are concerned that this might lead to a possible spike in child marriages.