GLOBAL GIRLHOOD REPORT 2022: Girls on the frontline

Child marriage is still a rampant issue to be solved. Child marriage is still a rampant issue to be solved. © UNICEF/UN0302727/Panday

In this report, Save the Children highlighted how girls in conflict-zones risk being child spouses 20% more than those living in peaceful regions, offering an important insight on the matter.

The International Day of the Girl, 11th October, celebrates girls' achievements and brings attention to the challenges they face. The theme chosen for this year was child marriage, an issue that could be prevented only during childhood. Child marriage can expose girls to a lifetime of gender-based violence and can lead to an early end to their education. Girls are far more likely to be married as children than boys, often against their will.

Save the Children research is based upon estimates on DHS/MICS; its sample is comped of 94 countries (covering 65% of world population); other trends and projections for wealth and urban/rural subgroups are based on a subset of 90 countries (covering 62% of world population). Projections were based upon pre-COVID trends, even before it, a steep increase in progress was needed to end child marriage by 2030. Progress has been unequal – between regions and different groups- in fact girls growing up in poorer households were four times more likely to marry than girls from richer households; consequently increasing poverty could now be putting more girls at risk. 

This new study between Safe the Children and Turfs University wants to put the spotlight on the value of girls’ experiences, mostly neglected in other studies, showing the importance of changing gender norms, and tackling all forms of gender inequality to end child marriage and fulfil girls' rights. 89.2 million adolescent girls around the world live in conflict zones (within a 50km perimeter) - that's almost 1 in 5 adolescent girls (aged 10-17 years). The girls' control over marriage decisions varied widely, from those who were kidnapped and forced to marry, to those who married for love. Eight of the ten countries with the highest rates of child marriage are experiencing humanitarian crises, according to Save the Children research. Before COVID-19, global estimates of the rate of child marriage were decreasing with 25 million child marriages prevented in the ten years between 2008 and 2018. Efforts to end child marriage also link to Sustainable Development Goal: Protect Children from Abuse, Exploitation, Trafficking and Violence. The number of girls marrying each year was still estimated to be around 12 million, of those 2 millions were married before their 15th birthday. Girls who are out of school, orphaned, growing up in poverty or at risk of gender-based violence are more likely to be married as children. The highest rates of child marriage are now in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in areas affected by humanitarian crises such as the Sahel region. 

Finding ways to accelerate progress for girls most at risk so is crucial to end child marriage, but action to address this violence received less funding than any other form of protection. More research is urgently needed to better understand the impact of compound crises on risk of child marriage. Governments and organizations must work with women, girls and their communities in every conflict to plan for and fund action to prevent gender-based violence. These include efforts by individual girls, women's rights and other local organizations, legal change, and global and regional campaigns. New and ongoing challenges remain: 

  • Transforming the patriarchal structures that allow child marriage and other forms of gender-based violence will take time and a strong commitment to shift power to women and girls.
  • Progress for girls' rights is being met by growing opposition, albeit it is becoming a key sticking point in global negotiations to progress human rights. 
  • Funding programs require action to address risk in all areas from safety to health and education, as well as investing in girls' agency and capacity.

The growing and combined impact of the 'four C's' (conflict, the ongoing impacts of COVID-19, the global climate emergency, and the rising cost of living) bring a new urgency to efforts to end child marriage and protect girls' rights. Some of the stories shared in the research describe violence, loss and other emotional suffering. Speaking about their experiences of violence can put girls at risk of further violence from others, since abusers might not want their behavior made public. 

The study asked adolescent girls and young women living in South Sudan and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq about their experiences of child marriage. Their responses challenge some of the ways that child marriage is often understood and provide detail on how different experiences can be depending on who girls are and where they live. All of the girls in the study had been forced to leave their homes to escape conflict and discrimination.

Some girls in South Sudan have described being kidnapped by their future husbands, or having their families decide on their wedding. Bridewealth (also called brideprice) — a payment made in cattle from the groom's family to the bride's family — was a consideration in all types of marriage. Some girls shared that their mothers had supported them to escape marriages. Interviews with girls in South Sudan showed a startling lack of information about how to prevent pregnancy, and a lack of access to services, even after having a child. Some girls described marrying because they knew that the cattle their family would receive would help provide for them.  Most girls married because they were not in school or "had nothing to do". Findings show the importance of having quality education opportunities and work available for girls in refugee and displacement settings. Marriage can affect a girls' ability to apply to be a refugee as part of a family as well as her children's inheritance rights. Girls in South Sudan were sometimes only treated as married after a bride's pregnancy price was paid, which could take years or may never be paid in full. The importance of marriage for financial support meant that this uncertainty had real consequences, particularly for girls with children. For refugee girls, being forced to live in a camp during conflict limited girls' ability to get away from violent husbands. 

Ending child marriage means making sure girls don't have to depend on marriage for safety, to meet their needs or that of their families, so to look after their relatives. It also gives girls the opportunities they need to build the future they want and allows them to express their sexuality inside and outside marriage. The tenth anniversary of International Day of the Girl is a wake-up call to governments, communities, businesses, and civil society organizations. There is so much more we can do to end child marriage and fulfil girls' rights, even in the most challenging circumstances. 

Original report available here:

by Viola Rubeca 

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