The coronavirus pandemic could lead to a spike in child marriages globally, reversing 25 years of progress on ending the practice, a charity has warned.
Save the Children said Covid-19 had put 2.5 million more girls at risk of early marriage by 2025.
The pandemic is increasing poverty, forcing girls out of school and into work or marriage, the charity said.
Girls in parts of South Asia, Africa and Latin America are most vulnerable.
The UK-based charity is calling on world leaders to commit more funding and support to efforts to address child marriage and gender inequality.
“These marriages violate girls’ rights and leave them at increased risk of depression, lifelong violence, disabilities and even death,” said Karen Flanagan, a child-protection adviser for Save the Children.
She said that 78.6 million child marriages had been prevented over the last 25 years but progress to end the practice had “slowed to a halt”.
Last month Girls Not Brides, a group that campaigns to end child marriages, told the BBC it was seeing a similar trend, driven by shrinking economies and the closure of schools during the pandemic.
Dr Faith Mwangi-Powell, chief executive of Girls Not Brides, said education “provides a safety net for girls”. She said more financial support, monitoring and community engagement was required to ensure girls can attend school.
Around 12 million girls are victims of early marriage every year, the charity says.
But its report finds that number is expected to rise markedly over the next five years as the economic consequences of pandemic take their toll.
In 2020 alone, another 500,000 girls risk being forced into child marriages and up to one million more are expected to become pregnant, the charity says.
If no action is taken, there could be 61 million child marriages by 2025, according to the charity, yet this estimate may only be “the tip of the iceberg”.
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Number of Women and Girls At Risk: 25,000
Status: Existing Legislation Needs Strengthening
Improve by adding: Prosecuting parents/guardian, felony offense