The COVID-19 pandemic has dominated 2020 so far, causing over 400,000 deaths and stopping day-to-day activities across the globe as we struggle to control the infection rate. We already know there will be over 13 million more child marriages over the next 10 years as a result of COVID-19, unless significant efforts are made to end the practice.
The Centre for Social Concern and Development (CESOCODE), a Girls Not Brides member organisation based in Malawi, have had to adapt their work to end child marriage as a result of the current pandemic.
In Malawi, 42% of girls are married before the age of 18 and almost one in ten before their 15th birthday. According to UNICEF data, Malawi has the 12th highest prevalence of child marriage in the world. CESOCODE began activities in 2009, focusing on reducing child marriage in remote rural areas by working with communities and their leaders to encourage girls to stay in school. CESOCODE also counsel girls who are affected by gender-based violence, and provide a safe space for them to connect with sexual and reproductive healthcare – a key tool in ending child marriage.
Malawi has been under a nationwide lockdown since late March, in an effort to control the spread of COVID-19. Of course, a national lockdown also means the closure of all schools. According to Ephraim Chimwaza, Programs Director for CESOCODE, this is where the trouble begins.
“When girls are forced to stay at home or within their communities rather than attending school, they are at far greater risk of experiencing gender-based violence and are more vulnerable to child marriage. The difficulty of the lockdown means that they cannot report anything that does happen to them, as they are much more isolated.”
CESOCODE has had to find low-cost and innovative ways to continue their work in spite of the restrictions, and – challenging though that has been – Ephraim remains positive: “We have had to find new ways to communicate with girls, so have developed a Bluetooth mobile-to-mobile messaging service, which allows us to check in with girls, and for them to let us know if they are at risk. We have also developed a short podcast focusing on domestic violence against girls, and we are making use of social media such as Facebook to promote messaging about public health and domestic violence prevention. This includes a version in sign language, so that we can ensure girls who are deaf or hard of hearing aren’t excluded.”
For communities unable to access social media due to a lack of technology, CESOCODE are reaching out in different ways: “We have a van and loudspeaker which we are taking out to rural communities to spread the government advice about public health and keeping safe. We have also produced flyers, brochures and posters to inform girls about prevention of domestic violence and to encourage them to report it when they can.”
One of the girls who has been using the services that CESOCODE provide explained how life in Malawi has changed for her: “The lockdown has made my life difficult because schools are closed and there is limited movement. I cannot access sexual health services or buy sanitary products because of the lockdown. As a girl, my life is difficult. Before lockdown I was attending school. I miss it because I was preparing to sit for my final secondary school examination next year. CESOCODE is doing great work in my community to protect girls. We have been encouraged to share information about any challenges we are facing because of the lockdown through technology such as Facebook, WhatsApp and text messages. We know we can contact them for help if we face any form of violence.”
“I worry about COVID-19. If the crisis continues, I will miss my education and many girls in my community will get pregnant or be forced to marry. I hope that CESOCODE continue their work in my community to help us through this time.”
While COVID-19 is causing new and complex challenges, for many girls across the world these will continue even as we begin to recover – how to maintain their rights to attend school, and choose who and when to marry. Girls Not Brides stands in solidarity with our amazing member organisations who are out there championing the futures of girls, even in the face of global uncertainty.
In the time it has taken to read this article 44 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