Much of the world is now affected by COVID-19, and Girls Not Brides member organisations are having to adapt their work to end child marriage and find alternative ways to protect girls. We asked our members to share some of the issues they have faced in the first few weeks of what is expected to be a long-term global shift.
Here are four of the ways COVID-19 is affecting our member organisations’ work in their communities.
1. School closures are putting girls directly at risk of child marriage
This has arguably the most visible impact on adolescent girls in this pandemic, and is a global concern. We already know that there are clear links between lack of access to education and higher rates of child marriage, and widespread school closures are having a direct and negative impact.
But it’s not only about access to education and the future economic independence this offers girls. Closing schools means that poor households who depend on school meals for their girls face a greater burden to provide food. With already scarce resources stretched, families can turn to child marriage as a way to protect their daughters.
“If people don’t know when this pandemic is going to end, they are not going to wait around to allow their girls to be educated. They will marry them off now.” Girls Not Brides member, India
2. Moving into the online space costs money, and assumes access
We are hearing that many organisations are moving to online spaces to deliver their programmes. But what does this mean for community-based organisations, particularly those working in remote or rural areas? Shifting to a digital approach assumes robust and widespread access to technology and the internet, which is not the case for many of the communities our members work in.
Extra costs, such as purchasing additional data or devices, pose significant barriers to delivering programmes to end child marriage. Access is perhaps the most critical barrier of all. The most vulnerable and hardest-to-reach girls and communities are precisely those that are now even harder to reach.
Door-to-door awareness-raising campaigns, girls’ clubs and safe spaces – all things which need a face-to-face, physical presence – are in many contexts simply no longer possible. More than just redirecting resources to support online working, this is about rethinking whole programme approaches.
3. Girls are at increased risk of gender-based violence and growing gender inequalities
The impact of curfews and lockdowns means girls are at home for longer periods. Restrictions on leaving the household put them at greater risk of domestic violence, to the extent that violence against women and girls is being called a "shadow pandemic" that is growing alongside the coronavirus pandemic. Without access to girls’ clubs and other safe spaces, options are limited for isolated girls who are already at risk.
Helplines, already an important resource for girls, are increasingly in demand.
With more time in the home, girls are also taking on the burden of household chores, reinforcing gender inequalities. For example, even where out-of-school adolescents are able to access distance learning, girls do not have the same chances as boys as they are expected to take on more chores. Some members are reporting that this can put them at even greater risk of sexual harassment and expose them to violence as they go to markets to buy food, which is in many areas becoming scarce.
“...the closure of schools has increased girls' vulnerability to physical and sexual abuse both by their peers and by older men, as girls are often at home alone and unsupervised.” Girls Not Brides member, Tanzania
4. Short term demands could divert resources away from child marriage programming
We’re hearing from our member organisations in several countries that the roll-out and ongoing delivery of new and existing programmes to end child marriage is being restricted. Many are shifting the focus of their work to support emergency relief in their communities. In India, NGOs are mandated to focus their work entirely on the crisis. The future long-term sustainability of projects and programmes, especially those with already tight budgets and resources, will be even more challenging as we move into the recovery period.
Another aspect to this is that everyday health priorities – and essential care such as sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) care – are in danger of being overlooked. Delays or lack of access to essential care could have a negative impact on girls’ health and lead to an increase in adolescent pregnancies – also a driver of child marriage.
“With limited access to SRHR services and increased risk of sexual violence at this time of pandemic, there is a risk that more girls will be subjected into teenage pregnancy” Girls Not Brides member, Sierra Leone
New problems call for new solutions
There is no question that we are facing a global challenge on a previously unseen scale. But we are inspired by stories from our member organisations about how they are shifting their work.
From mobilising girl volunteers to make masks in Rajasthan, using trucks with mobile PA systems to call for safety for girls in Uganda, to hand-drawing posters in India when printers shut down, our members are at the forefront of adapting to the new reality and ensuring that girls at risk of child marriage, and married girls, are not forgotten.
In the time it has taken to read this article 54 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 3 seconds