Editor’s note: The Covid-19 pandemic has shut down many girls’ already limited access to education, especially if they are internally displaced or refugees. In a new “Girls at Risk” series, Al-Fanar Media is focusing on factors that keep girls out of school. Typically, Al-Fanar Media focuses on Arab higher education, but we believe it is also important sometimes to turn our attention to the barriers that prevent the disadvantaged from ever reaching universities. All of the articles in the Girls at Risk series can be found here.
In the Middle East and North Africa, 700,000 girls marry each year before their 18th birthday, according to the United Nations, adding to the 40 million women already wed as children in the region.
Globally, one in five girls marry before age 18. Still, over the past 25 years, countries around the world, including some in the Arab region, have made significant progress in bringing down those rates.
But a “shadow pandemic” of violence and discrimination against girls and women is threatening those gains, with researchers, child advocates, and aid workers estimating that the impacts of the coronavirus will add 13 million more child brides worldwide, leading to 10 million more girls dropping out of secondary school.
“The problem is, in this crisis, money is being directed to health interventions rather than to prioritize education—which should be the priority,” says Anna Cristina D’Addio, a senior policy analyst for Unesco’s Global Education Monitoring report. “And it is very likely that without the right interventions now, there will be some negative effects regarding child marriage—that the progress can be halted or reversed.”
For decades, child marriage has been widely viewed as a human rights violation, with various international agreements over the years attempting to eliminate the practice. (See this reference: “International Agreements Have Tried to Eliminate Child Marriage Over the Decades.”) World leaders, including those in Arab countries, signed those agreements, child advocates say, because they realized the devastating lifelong consequences that early marriage has for girls. Child marriage halts their education, exposes them to much greater risks of sexually transmitted diseases, cervical cancer and obstetric fistulas, and increases their risks of becoming isolated and suffering from domestic violence and damage to their mental health.
Dangers of Adolescent Pregnancy
Meanwhile, early marriage thrusts motherhood on girls who aren’t ready for it emotionally or physically. Adolescent pregnancy is the leading cause of death among adolescent girls globally, and 90 percent of births among adolescent girls occur within child marriage, says Girls Not Brides, an organization that advocates against child marriage. Depending on their age, teenage girls are two to seven times more likely to die of complications in pregnancy and childbirth than women in their 20s. Neonatal mortality rates are 73 percent higher for infants born to mothers under 20 years of age than for those born to older mothers, according to the World Health Organization.