Editor's Note: This article was updated on Oct. 6 to correct data on child marriage and pregnancy rates in 2020.
Girls are most at risk of child marriage during humanitarian crises and the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception.
The humanitarian organization Save the Children released a report entitled "Global Girlhood 2020: COVID-19 and progress in peril" on Wednesday. The report revealed that the pandemic put an additional 500,000 girls at risk of child marriage — the marriage of a girl under the age of 18. As many as 1 million more girls are also expected to become pregnant as a result of the crisis.
As more families are being pushed into poverty, they are resorting to child marriage as an option to alleviate financial burdens, according to Save the Children CEO Janti Soeripto.
"A growing risk of violence and sexual exploitation, combined with growing food and economic insecurity — especially in humanitarian emergencies — also means many parents feel they have little alternative but to force their girls to marry men who are often much older," Soeripto said in a press release issued to Global Citizen.
The data analyzed in the report exceeds predictions and demonstrates a spike in poverty with a year-over-year increase of 4% in child marriage rates and a 3% in teen pregnancy rates in 2020. The uptick is expected to undo 25 years of progress that prevented 78.6 million girls from entering into child marriages.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, however, progress to end child marriage had plateaued, the report pointed out.
500K girls are at risk of child marriage and a million more are expected to become pregnant in 2020 due to the economic impact of COVID-19.— Save the Children US (@SavetheChildren) October 1, 2020
World leaders must act now to #ProtectAGeneration of girls – they deserve a fulfilling future.
Learn more: https://t.co/0ZJ08K9QpBpic.twitter.com/MPmDrPSw1g
Experts previously estimated that 12 million girls would enter child marriages in 2020, but up to 2.5 million more children are now expected to marry annually, according to the report. The number of child marriages could reach 61 million by 2025. This high rate could put millions of girls at risk of not returning to school, and experiencing mental health issues, violence, and death, Soeripto explained.
Girls were most impacted by child marriage in South Asia, followed by West and Central Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean in 2020. Child marriage is also expected to rise in other regions including East Asia, the Pacific, Europe and Central Asia, and the Middle East and North Africa, the report noted.
What’s more, girls in Eastern and Southern Africa are most at risk of early pregnancy, followed by West and Central Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean.
A 16-year-old child marriage advocate from India’s Bihar state, who goes by Sunita in the report, shared how she felt when she first learned about her arranged marriage.
"I felt really terrible because I was still very young and was attending school with my friends," she said. "All my dreams were shattered in that moment."
"My message to all girls my age would be to delay your marriage and do whatever it takes to fulfill your dreams," she added.
Soeripto is urging the international community not to allow child marriage rates to continue to grow. During the United Nations General Assembly Plenary Meeting meeting in New York on Thursday, the organization is calling on world leaders to include girls in decision-making, address gender-based violence, invest in girls, and improve sex-segregated data.
"It’s time for world leaders to come together to protect a generation of girls so they don’t miss out on the life-changing opportunities they’re just as entitled to as boys, including education," said Soeripto. "Girls must have a seat at any decision-making table that involves their rights so they can design the future they choose."