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Girls Rush to Marriage, Childbirth for Fear of COVID-19

FILE - Zali Idy, 12, poses in her bedroom in the remote village of Hawkantaki, Niger, July 18, 2012. Zali was married in 2011.

Girls in developing countries are so afraid of dying from COVID-19 that they are considering marrying and having children sooner, according to new reports.

CAMFED, an organization that focuses on the education of girls in sub-Saharan Africa, says fear of the pandemic is so severe that some girls have prioritized marriage and children over education.

According to CAMFED Association member Rose Alexander, who works to prevent and annul child marriages in Malawi, some community members are saying “schools won’t reopen, so just marry.”

In response to such sentiments, CAMFED members such as Alexander have been reaching out to girls and describing the risks of child marriage and early pregnancy, while supporting girls in their studies.

Seventy-eight percent of respondents to the survey sponsored by the Center for Global Development (CGD) also expressed concerns about school closures increasing gender-based violence.

“Schools, and the wrap-around social support they provide, can be a safe space for children, especially girls, where they can be supported to navigate issues they face at school and home,” said Faith Nkala, national director of CAMFED Zimbabwe.

FILE- In this July 20, 2013, file photo, a woman protests against underage marriage in Lagos, Nigeria.
FILE- In this July 20, 2013, file photo, a woman protests against underage marriage in Lagos, Nigeria.

In its March COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Intern Technical Brief, the United Nations Population Fund pointed to heightened dangers girls might face during the pandemic.

“Women and girls are at greater risk of experiencing gender-based violence and the threat of harmful practices, including female genital mutilation and child, early, and forced marriages, especially for girls in disadvantaged and hard-to-reach areas,” the brief said.

The United Nations called the global surge in gender-based violence the “shadow pandemic.

Another CGD survey showed that girls will be disproportionately harmed by school closures related to COVID-19.

Nearly 70% of respondents said they believed girls are more likely to be negatively affected by COVID-19 school closures than boys.

More than half of the 70% cited increased household chores during the pandemic as hindering continued education. Early marriage and pregnancy as a result of school closures was a worry among 40% of respondents.

The survey included responses from 82 organizations providing educational services in at least 32 countries. Half the participating organizations were from sub-Saharan Africa. The rest dispersed across South Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America.

Other organizations detail similar issues.

The Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) echoed worries about the devaluing of girls’ education during the pandemic.

“It takes time and work to gain acceptance for the value of girls' education in many remote areas, and I fear we will lose much of the ground that has been gained for this current generation of girls,” said Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, executive director of AIL, and founder of four private high schools in Afghanistan.

Concerns about girls’ education and well-being during the current pandemic mirrors those during the 2014 to 2015 Ebola epidemic.

A report by the Malala Fund found that at the peak of the Ebola crisis, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone closed more than 10,000 schools, impacting the education of approximately 5 million schoolchildren.

The enrollment of girls in these three countries, already lower than that of boys, did not return to pre-Ebola crisis levels.

UNESCO reported an increase of adolescent pregnancy by up to 65% in some Sierra Leone communities during the Ebola epidemic — an event most girls attributed to the direct result of being outside the protective environment provided by schools, another study revealed.

To prevent similar outcomes during the coronavirus pandemic, UNESCO has asked governments to “protect progress made in favor of girls’ education.”

For the educational service organizations that participated in CGD’s recent survey, however, budget cuts and a dip in funding from private and philanthropic donors as a result of the pandemic made continuing their missions difficult.

Despite these hurdles, the overwhelming majority of respondents reported plans to deliver additional vital interventions during the pandemic.