Programmes designed to end child marriage and female genital mutilation(FGM) are facing serious delays in implementation as a result of the raging COVID-19 pandemic.
Secondly, pandemic-related economic disruptions are increasing the vulnerability of girls to harmful coping mechanisms, including these harmful practices
There is little data however, on how the ongoing pandemic is affecting the exercise of harmful practices around the world.
An analysis by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Avenir Health, Johns Hopkins University (USA) and Victoria University (Australia) looked at the potential consequences of pandemic-related disruptions on both harmful practices.
If the pandemic causes a two-year delay in female genital mutilation-prevention programmes, researchers projected that two million female genital mutilation cases will occur over the next decade that will otherwise have been averted
But, if the pandemic causes a one-year average delay in interventions to end child marriage, considered a conservative estimate, some 7.4 million more child marriages are projected to occur over the next decade that otherwise could have been averted.
In addition, the pandemic-caused economic downturn is projected to result in an estimated 5.6 million additional child marriages taking place between 2020 and 2030.
The total effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is therefore projected to result in 13 million additional child marriages.
An estimated 200 million women alive today have undergone FGM, which is a violation of girls’ human rights and is often a precursor to the child, early and forced marriage, which usually ends a girl’s education and dims her economic prospects.
Programmes that promote the abandonment of FGM have proved successful in communities around the world. These, together with growing urbanization, education and other dynamics, were expected to avert 46.5 million cases of FGM between 2020 and 2050.
At the same time, due to population growth in countries where the practice is prevalent, an additional 68 million girls are at risk of undergoing this harmful practice between 2015 and 2030.
But the situation today is in flux, as the COVID-19 pandemic could postpone the deployment of programmes to eliminate FGM.
Social distancing precludes some of the most effective prevention programming such as community empowerment programmes and abandonment proclamations, which are typically implemented in group settings.
It is additionally possible that economic uncertainty and school closures could cause an uptick in the incidence of FGM, although this requires investigation. Avenir Health previously projected that scaling up FGM prevention programmes will reduce new cases of FGM by around 5.3 million cases between 2020 and 2030.
The COVID-19 pandemic could affect those estimates by delaying the scale-up of prevention efforts due to lockdown terms, and by diverting the attention and efforts of health and social programmes instead of COVID-19 control.
Assuming a later start of programmes (i.e., using a 2-year delay in 2020 and 2021) in many countries as a result of these factors, and a resulting lower programme coverage achievements by 2030, it is anticipated that two million cases of FGM will occur between 2020 and 2030 that could have been averted, resulting in a 33 per cent reduction in the progress toward ending this harmful practice.
COVID-19 is likely to have a significant impact on the implementation of interventions to reduce child marriage, in particular as a result of the social distancing requirements implemented in many countries.
Not all interventions are expected to be equally affected, but on average a delay of one year could be regarded as conservative.
Researchers had previously projected that a well-defined package of interventions to reduce child marriage — which both address social and cultural norms around early marriage and keep girls in school — will reduce the number of child marriages by almost 60 million in the period between 2020 and to 2030.
Deferring the implementation of this package by just one year, on average, will reduce the number of child marriages averted by an estimated 7.4 million.
In addition to reducing the efficacy and reach of such planned interventions, the pandemic is expected to cause a severe worldwide economic recession.
This economic downturn will likely have a large impact on poverty levels in low-income countries where child marriage is most prevalent. Because poverty is a key driver of child marriage, these economic impacts are anticipated to increase rates of child marriage in vulnerable communities.
While the ultimate size of the economic impact is still impossible to predict, a paper published by the United Nations University has placed the reduction in GDP per capita in the range of 5 to 20 per cent.
Should the reduction in GDP per capita by 10 per cent, then an estimated 5.6 million additional child marriages are likely to take place between 2020 and 2030.