Safe from the Pandemic, but Trapped by Child Marriage


Safe from the Pandemic, but Trapped by Child Marriage

It may be too early to count the loss and destruction brought by the pandemic, as the impact that it has brought on the global economy, societies, families and personal health, has yet to fully surface and be reflected in statistics. However, the imminent threats to children’s well-being and life are very evident, but sadly remain underrated and unaddressed.

Children are made more vulnerable

Children are often the most vulnerable and helpless in any disaster. In this pandemic, while there are less cases of infection among children, their daily routines and their lives got even further out of their hands. To gain a fuller picture of how children were faring during the pandemic, World Vision interviewed 763 children and young people aged between 7 and 19 years old across 50 countries in Asia Pacific, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa; and listened to their views and thoughts on the following three themes: (1) the impacts of COVID-19 on children and young people; (2) their resilient responses to these impacts personally, in their families and communities; and (3) the support that children and young people need to be safe, healthy and help to fight the further spread of the virus. The data was compiled in the recently published Act Now: Experiences and recommendations of girls and boys on the impact of COVID-19 report. In this report, 82% of the children and young people said the pandemic had impacted their education, and 81% talked about violence in their homes, communities and online since the start of the pandemic. Children in Asia Pacific and sub-Saharan Africa even highlighted that child marriage was becoming more and more common. The report also recorded some of the remarks made by some of the children interviewed.

  • “Children are now more afraid of getting married than before.” (Alie, 11, Sierra Leone)
  • “Family disputes amongst parents … force children to leave home and [enter] into marriage.” (Noeline, 16, Uganda)
  • “Poverty is forcing many parents to marry off their children at an early age. They are being persecuted, too. Poverty is the prime cause of these issues. I think COVID-19 has increased child marriage and child labour.” (Naimul, 15, Bangladesh)
  • “I heard that several girls were raped during the time of the confinement. Even in my neighbourhood, a girl was raped and is now pregnant. If there were no confinement and no COVID-19, she would have been in school.” (Flore, 15, Haiti)
Among the various threats brought to the children by the pandemic, the upward trend of violence and child marriage is the most worrying. World Vision’s Aftershocks – A Perfect Storm report estimates that at least four million more girls may become victims of child marriage in the next two years, as parents struggle to provide for their children. Moreover, the traumatic experiences of sexual violence, regardless of whether it occurred within the context of marriage, often have lifelong effects. Also, child marriage often leads to premature pregnancy before the girls are fully ready, hence posing a severe risk to the lives of both the mother and the baby.

The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to worsen the tragedy of child marriage, according to World Vision’s child marriage expert, Erica Hall. “When you have any crisis like a conflict, disaster, or pandemic, rates of child marriage go up,” Hall said recently. She emphasised that families don’t do this because they’re uncaring, or don’t love their daughters. Often, it’s a desperate last resort, when the money has run out and loved ones – including the daughter herself – are starving. To keep everyone alive, their only option is to marry off a young daughter to solve their financial problems. It is possible that some families could use the lockdown to conceal child marriages, which are illegal in most countries. But Hall expects the real spike will come later, as families battle with the economic fallout of the pandemic. World Vision is intervening in over 70 countries by means such as providing food assistance and distributing cash and vouchers, to support families affected by the pandemic and to prevent children from becoming victims of child marriage because of their families’ financial difficulties.

When we talk about COVID-19, we tend to focus on the threat that the virus brings to people’s lives, or the impact that it has on our daily routines and economic development. We often neglect that children may embark on a totally different course of life in this very period because they have been forced into actions they don’t want or have lost faith in the future. Even after the pandemic is brought under control, the children will still suffer the consequences of such decisions, some of which may even be lifelong.

Story of child brides (1)

Shoshi: I was married at 13

Shoshi (name changed) realised the brutal truth of society when she was only 13. “I was a burden to my family just because of being a girl. In this society, being born as a girl is a sin. I had to burry all my dreams. Now I am shackled with an invisible rope for the rest of my life,” she says.

Shoshi was a sixth-grade student. She had a lot of dreams regarding her future, like becoming a successful doctor. However, with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, her family struggled financially and wanted to marry her off. “It was about 10 pm on 15 June 2020. I was getting ready for bed. Suddenly, my mother knocked on the door and told me to get ready for marriage. This came as a bolt from the blue. I was speechless for a few minutes. Then I started screaming as I could see the ruins of my dreams. I fainted out of shock,” says Shoshi. “Then I discovered myself in a new wedding sari. My elder sister was decorating me in the shadowy light as a bride. At that time, I felt that I was having a bad dream, and things began to get blurry again.”

When she regained consciousness, her father threatened her and said, “If you do not agree to marry, I will commit suicide.” Having no other alternatives left, she could only consent to marriage. “They treated me like I was a lifeless clay doll to which they could do anything anytime, like breaking or destroying.”

Shoshi feels that she was like a lifeless clay doll that others could freely break and destroy at will.

When Shoshi’s husband took her away, he tossed her toys into the fire, putting an end to the good times of her childhood.

Now, her rickshaw puller father and the family are aware of the demerits of early marriage, but the lockdown compelled him to do so, as his income stopped like the wheels of the rickshaw. “I know according to the law it is a crime. But I am too poor and cannot provide for the family anymore. So when I got a proposal from a well-off groom, I decided to give her away in marriage. At least, I am now burden-free and relaxed. I no longer need to worry about her being hungry,” he says with a sense of frustration.

Shoshi’s mother adds, “Shoshi was growing fast. I was worried about my girl’s future. Seeing the increasing abuse of the girls around, we decided to marry her to ensure her safety and well-being.”

In the house of her in-laws, Shoshi is now very busy managing all the household chores of the family of six, cooking, washing clothes and cleaning all day long. Still, her mother-in-law does not hesitate to scold her if she cannot manage everything properly. She is losing her physical and mental strength day by day. “I feel discomfort and distress living with my husband,” she says in sorrow.

Story of child brides (2)

Esinta: I chose to get married

Esinta claims to be 16 years old, but looking at her, you would believe that she is much younger. When Malawi shut its schools in March last year due to the spreading COVID-19 pandemic, Esinta was in primary 4. She married a boy soon after schools were closed.

The legal marriage age in Malawi is 18, and World Vision, which runs a development programme in Esinta’s community, has been campaigning to end child marriage. Therefore, Esinta’s community sprang into action and tried to prevent the marriage. It was brought before the traditional leader Chiwalo, who ruled the marriage illegal and void.

But within a few days, Esinta went back to her ‘marital home’ to stay with her husband despite the community efforts. Their parents tried to reason with them to come home and accept the annulment, but Esinta and her husband were adamant to stay together. And now Esinta is pregnant.

The closure of schools has affected the work of the child protection committee. James Michael is the chairperson of child protection in the district. He says that cases of child marriages and teenage pregnancies are not new in the area but have become more common since schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, Malawi’s education policy further complicates matters, as young mothers are suspended for one year before being allowed to re-enrol.

Esinta has no intention of going back to school after delivering her child. To her, schools are closed and chances of reopening are very slim. “I would rather be married than waiting for something that I am not sure of,” she said. “I see no problem being married. I am comfortable, and I will take care of my baby no matter the cost.”

Esinta admits that the closure of schools prompted her to get married because her parents were unable to provide for her basic needs. “It will benefit them to end this marriage because it has no future,” says Esinta’s mother.

Esinta, a primary 4 student, chose to get married not long after schools were closed due to the pandemic, because she believed that the schools were not going to reopen.

Despite the objection of her parents and community members, Esinta got married and soon became pregnant.

Story of struggle in the pandemic (1)

Jessica: I just want to give the children what they want

Jessica lost her job in the pandemic. As a single mother struggling to provide for her three children, she never felt this helpless before.
“I was already having a hard time as a single mother before COVID-19, but since the community quarantine was imposed, I’ve never felt more helpless,” laments Jessica.

30-year old Jessica worked at a burger shack, where she was earning about 200 pesos (about USD4) a day, until the pandemic further sets back her situation. “It has been two months since I became jobless. It frustrates me and it breaks my heart when my children cry because of hunger,” she adds. With the increasing number of COVID-19 cases and the downturn of the economy, single mothers like Jessica suffer the most, especially in providing for the needs of their children while on community quarantine.

“This could take a toll on their physical, mental and emotional well-being, especially on women in poor communities. The disruption and even the loss of jobs and livelihoods is glaringly felt by women and this brought a heightened loss of resources to meet their basic needs,” says Carleneth San Valentin, World Vision’s health and nutrition manager. “Pregnant and lactating mothers are also affected. The lack of transport going to health facilities [due to] the community quarantine, the temporary suspension of basic health services including maternal health care and nutrition services for women and children are also challenges that need to be addressed.” Because of limited resources and mobility as well as the fear that they could get infected, Jessica was unable to bring her children to the health centre in the last two months.

“I just want to provide for them and to give them what they need. I rely on relief goods provided by the government and generous individuals. I am also dependent on the help of my family,” she shares.

Story of struggle in the pandemic (2)

Daranee: We must hang on

“Mum has come back home since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. I’m happy. It used to be just my grandparents and me. Now I get to see Mum every day after school. Mum is going to have a little sister for me soon, too,” says happily Paeng, 10, a World Vision sponsored child.

Although the innocent words of her daughter put a smile on Daranee’s face, the reflection in her eyes showed her despair. “I’ve been jobless for almost eight months. I worked as a traditional Thai masseuse in Pattaya. I have been in trouble since February, from the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. There were no tourists. Since the massage parlours were ordered to shut down temporarily to prevent the spread of the virus, I have been unemployed. On the one hand, it’s nice to come home to be with my daughter, but on the other hand, I’m troubled because I don’t know how to provide for my family since we don’t have any farmland.”

Daranee has received a remedy fund of 15,000 baht from the government and necessary supplies from the local administrative agency. However, the support is not sufficient to keep her family going for eight months without income. The only source of income that has been sustaining this family of five is the salary of the father, who can still work at a cassava starch factory. The family must exercise extreme frugality to survive. “It’s difficult but we need to hang on. We pick wild vegetables to eat with chilli paste,” shares Daranee.

Daranee’s eyes with a sad reflection turned brighter when she started talking about how her family has received support from World Vision’s COVID-19 recovery and mitigation project. “I was worried about everything at that time, especially when it was time for Paeng to go back to school. I didn’t know how to make any income to buy her a school uniform. But now I’m relieved because World Vision staff have given her school supplies, school uniform, and student shoes –everything Paeng needs at school. My worries about making money to feed all my family have also been lessened because World Vision has given us some food supplies.”

She continues, “My biggest concern is about my livelihood in the future. I’m going to have a new baby soon. The idea of finding a new job must be put aside. I’m so glad that World Vision has supported us to establish a safe household food source and taught us to raise catfish for a living. They’ve given us catfish fingerlings, helped us build a compact fishpond and given us some fish feed. The fingerlings have given me hope. They will not only keep my family fed but also give me a livelihood in a difficult time caused by the pandemic.”

“The catfish are still small. Mum lets me help feed them every day. When they’re fully grown, we’ll be able to cook them to eat or sell them,” says Paeng joyfully.

Daranee let Paeng help feed the fish every day. She is very grateful for World Vision’s help in the construction of the fishpond, which has sustained her family during the pandemic.

Upon receiving food packages from World Vision, Daranee’s worries about her child’s well-being were eased.

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