As COVID-19 disrupts and destabilizes on a global scale, reports from very different societies point to increasing violence against women. A related topic is rising numbers of early and forced marriages. Since early April, international development organizations and governments have released harrowing statistics and briefs underlining the dangers women and girls face in the “shadow pandemic” brought on by lockdown. However, most of the data and analysis lack a significant faith lens and few offer actionable ways for faith leaders and groups to help combat the problem. Faith leaders are often well-respected in the community and have considerable power to change social norms and advocate on behalf of social causes. Engaging more purposefully with leaders, especially in vulnerable communities, could help prevent girls from entering early marriages. This could have myriad positive outcomes not only for the girls themselves but for cultural norms and the national economy.
World Vision warned, in May 2020, that globally, 4 million girls are at risk of early or forced marriage due specifically to factors linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. Deepening poverty, school closures, and financial burdens for families can all contribute to rising early marriage numbers. School closures in particular are of great concern to advocates and charities, as attending school often serves as protection for girls from entering into marriage and the workforce at a young and often illegal age. Girls Not Brides reports that only 12% of households in low-income nations have access to the internet. Thus most of the world’s girls cannot access remote online learning. Many NGOs and FBOs across the globe are anxious that lockdowns and school closures can conceal early marriage numbers and that families are turning to early marriage as a survival mechanism and last resort.
Early marriage cuts across all cultures, social classes, faiths, and regions. In May it was reported in Ethiopia that after schools had been closed for two months, over 500 early marriages had been stopped by local NGOs and authorities. Similarly, in Bangladesh as of May, a local foundation had stopped 233 early marriages. Its leaders feared, however, that the girls could be put at risk for marriage later. Both articles cited the closure of schools and financial desperation of families as leading causes for the spike of early marriage. Both countries are among UNICEF’s list of countries with highest rates of child marriage, despite the fact that it is illegal to marry under the age of 18 in both nations. In Sub-Saharan Africa, CAMFED has reported that since schools have closed, many girls are prioritizing marriage and having children over education. Sentiments like “schools won’t reopen so just marry” are being repeated in places like Malawi.
Negative outcomes associated with early marriage include poor health and teen pregnancy but there are others. The economic ramifications are stark and extend beyond the individual consequences. Girls marrying before 18 face reduced lifetime earnings due to dropping out of schools and their families tend to face loss of earnings over time. At a global level, lost earnings and perpetual poverty linked to early marriage results in lost economic potential, estimated at US $26 billion per year in the 15 countries where early marriage is most prevalent.
There is ample evidence that religious leaders can be critical allies in the fight to end early marriage, for example, by participating in campaigns aimed at ending the practice, collaborating with development actors, making public commitments, and refusing to perform or support the marriage. Crucially, faith leaders themselves are the ones commonly officiating the marriage ceremony and often do so ‘underground’ so as to not face legal repercussions or stigma. Fostering a dialogue that takes a religious human rights approach can be helpful in changing a leader's attitudes towards the practice.
This global pandemic offers an important moment to explore ways to mobilize leaders and communities in positive directions. Engaging faith leaders and faith-run organizations in pandemic recovery needs both to take past reticence into account and look to new openings for dialogue and action to support women and young girls. Using local religious scholars and leaders to invoke specific scriptures that encourage the social and economic rights of women and girls could be helpful to achieve this goal, as one example. Both The Asia Foundation and Islamic Relief have used this method in the past, and it was met with success.
COVID-19 is not the root cause of violence being perpetrated against women and girls or the uptick in early marriage. Existing gender inequalities and harmful gender and social norms are exacerbated by economic and health crises. They can be mitigated by a range of interventions and policy reforms. The pandemic offers ample opportunities for government officials, policymakers, large development institutions, and NGOs to forge significant partnerships with faith leaders and communities to create a unified message and targeted response to combat early marriage and to reinforce the importance of girls finishing their primary and secondary education.