Child marriage rate falling too slowly, UN says in new report

UNICEF estimates that some 640 million girls and women today were married when they were below 18.

Radha Rani Mondal, 50, right, with her daughter in law Mampi Biswash sit in their shanty home
According to the report, the decline was largely driven by South Asian nations, particularly India [File: Anupam Nath/AP Photo]

Child marriages are declining but at a rate that would not eliminate the practice for another 300 years, as a series of crises, including climate change, threatens to reverse the trend, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has said in a report.

In the report published on Tuesday, UNICEF estimates that some 640 million girls, teens and women today were married when they were below the age of 18.

At present, an estimated 12 million girls and teens are becoming brides each year, it added.

Over the past 25 years, the rate at which such marriages take place has been slowing. In 1997, 25 percent of young women aged 20 to 24 were married before 18.

Fifteen years later, that figure had dropped to 23 percent. By 2022, it was at 19 percent.

According to the report, titled “Is an End to Child Marriage Within Reach?”, the decline was largely driven by South Asian nations, particularly India.

“In the last decade alone, a girl’s likelihood of marrying in childhood has dropped by nearly half, from 46 percent to 26 percent,” the report said.

“Of all child marriages averted in the past 25 years, 78 percent were in South Asia. This progress is driven largely by India, although notable declines have also been seen in Bangladesh, Maldives and Pakistan.”

However, the region remained home to the largest total number of child brides, as a result of “age-old practices and the region’s large population”.

South Asia, according to UNICEF, was home to nearly 45 percent of all the world’s child brides.

The report also said the sub-Saharan region was also of “considerable concern”, with girls there now experiencing the highest risk of child marriage in the world. It expects the number of child brides there to increase by 10 percent by 2030.

Reversing trends feared

UNICEF also fears that the convergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, global conflicts and the growing effects of climate change could reverse the hard-won gains.

“The world is engulfed by crises on top of crises that are crushing the hopes and dreams of vulnerable children, especially girls who should be students, not brides,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell in a statement.

“Health and economic crises, escalating armed conflicts, and the ravaging effects of climate change are forcing families to seek a false sense of refuge in child marriage.”

The coronavirus alone could be responsible for an additional 10 million underage marriages between 2020 and 2030, the report said.

“We’ve proven that progress to end child marriage is possible. It requires unwavering support for vulnerable girls and families,” Russell said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies