Girls affected by conflict are 20 per cent more likely to be married than those living in peaceful areas, according to a new analysis from Save the Children released on the 10th anniversary of International Day of the Girl.
Girls living in East Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, and South Asia face the highest risk of child marriage linked to conflict.
West and Central Africa – a region affected by conflict and climate emergencies, which lead to poverty and food shortages – have the highest rates of child marriage in the world.
The research also reveals that nearly 90 million girls – or 1 in 5 globally – are living in a conflict zone, with devastating impacts on their health, well-being and future opportunities.
Despite laws against child marriage in Nigeria, the country is home to one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world. Miriam*, 16, and her family were forced to flee their village in Borno state to escape armed groups.
They now live in a camp for internally displaced people, with devastating consequences for her.
Miriam said: “I was married against my will. It wasn’t my choice. (…) It’s been four months since I dropped out of school. During this time, life has not been easy for me. I studied a bit, but… I’ve since forgotten everything that I have ever learnt.”
While efforts to tackle child marriage often focus on preventing it, little attention is given to the needs and experiences of married girls.
Save the Children’s annual Global Girlhood Report: Girls on the frontline features the voices of married, widowed and divorced girls, including insights from girls displaced by conflict in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and South Sudan.
More than 600 interviews were conducted with 139 girls in both countries between 2020 and 2021 to understand their experiences—including their reasons for getting married and their experiences with pregnancy and after marriage.
Girls described varying degrees of control over the decision to marry – some were kidnapped and forced to marry. Others gave in to family pressure or married following an unplanned pregnancy.
While an estimated 25 million child marriages globally were prevented between 2008 and 2018, the world was a long way off track to meet the global Sustainable Development Goal deadline to end child marriage by 2030.
The COVID crisis and its ongoing impacts on gender inequality are projected to push 10 million more girls into marriage by 2030, the first jump in global rates in more than two decades.
The pandemic, combined with the worsening climate emergency, new and ongoing conflicts and the worst global food crisis in decades, further threaten progress to end child marriage.
Inger Ashing, CEO of Save the Children International, said: “Conflict has a devastating impact on families, forcing them to flee their homes, schools and jobs to move to temporary camps, which are often cramped, with few services, few options to earn money and next to no protection from violence.”
“While children bear the brunt of war, we know girls are targeted with brutal acts of violence because of their gender – in every conflict.”
“Humanitarian crises – be they climate disasters, pandemics or the ongoing global food crisis – lead to many of the same risks that drive child marriage, like increased poverty and a stripping away of protective systems that should be in place to keep girls safe from violence.”
“With so many girls facing overlapping crises, this anniversary should be a wakeup call to governments to prioritise girls and ensure they’re protected from child marriage and all the devastating impacts it has on their lives. That has to start by giving girls a say in decisions that affect them.”
Among its recommendations to end child marriage, Save the Children calls on governments to increase funding and efforts to address gender-based violence against girls, including funding for child protection in humanitarian crises.
The charity calls for investment in scaling up initiatives to end child marriage that rely on evidence and make them available to more girls in more places.
It said the government should support and fund girls to define solutions to their challenges by strengthening girl-led movements.
Other recommendations include developing, and fully-fund national action plans to end child marriage and other forms of gender-based violence and violence against children.
“Develop research to better understand how to prevent the “four C’s” (COVID, conflict, climate change and the rising cost of living) from reversing progress to end child marriage,” Save the Children said.
“Ensure they uphold their promises to girls made in their laws and global agreements like the Convention on the Rights of the Child, SDGs and Generation Equality Global Acceleration Plan.”