Everyday life has been forced to shift online during the COVID-19 pandemic, and as a result child, early and forced marriage customs have begun to operate in an increasingly digital world. But, as a new report from Plan International shows, the solutions to tackling child marriage may also be found online.
“Time to act: Let’s Go Digital: Ending Child, Early and Forced Marriage through Digital Technology” analyses how more than 40 existing digital technologies and apps have the potential to prevent and end child marriage.
Since the start of the pandemic, different online platforms and mobile applications have been used to raise awareness of imminent risks and threats. The online space is becoming one of the main channels of reporting suspected cases of early and forced marriage to law enforcement agencies and strengthening referral pathways.
COVID-19 pandemic puts more girls at risk of child marriage
Governments around the world have committed to eliminating child marriage by 2030, as part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Yet currently, 12 million girls are still being married off before the age of 18 each year. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse, with an additional 13 million girls potentially being put at risk of child, early or forced marriage (CEFM).
Bhagyashri Dengle, Plan International Asia-Pacific Hub Regional Director, said: “Child marriage has been holding girls back for too long, depriving them of their rights, limiting their life opportunities, often reducing their existence to slave-like conditions of submission, exploitation and exclusion.
Child marriage is raising its menacing head again, threatening to reverse decades of progress made in curbing its vicious advance.
“With the current pandemic and all its domino effects on regional economies, healthcare systems, and girls’ education – to name but a few – child marriage is raising its menacing head again, threatening to reverse decades of progress made in curbing its vicious advance.
“Our research shows that we have a clear window of opportunity to harness the power of digital tools. The time to act is now: it is time to respond to this ancient harmful practice by reaching for modern means, including state-of-the-art digital technologies and online solutions.”
The report, which is based on an in-depth literature review and interviews with Plan International staff, youth and other INGOs, provides vital recommendations for using online solutions to eradicate CEFM.
The organisation heard from girls themselves, who highlighted the importance and immediacy of digital solutions to tackle child marriage issues arising online.
Huong*, a 21-year old member of Plan International Vietnam’s Youth Advisory Committee, said: “In my village, many boys and girls made friends online and fell in love virtually. Then they met each other outside, got pregnant, and then dropped out of school at age 14 or 15. It’s become very common now. I think we should do something to prevent this issue, such as promotion messages on child marriage elimination on social media platforms.”
Benefits of digital technologies in fighting child marriage
The research found that digital technologies had the following benefits in fighting child marriage:
- Anonymity, which is especially important for accessing information about taboo subjects such as sexual and reproductive health.
- Creating networks with the ability to interact and share information instantly.
- Access to information and the creation of communities without the requirement of physically being in the same space.
- Safe online spaces can be a lifeline for survivors of gender-based violence, oppressed and threatened minorities and can be indispensable in times of emergencies and disasters.
- Girls, young women and youth can access safe and confidential guidance on sexual reproductive health and rights as well as access support services.
- Online content can provide information and resources on how young people can reduce their exposure to child marriage and reduce their risks.
A major focus of Plan International’s work on ending CEFM involves engaging with girls and young women, developing and strengthening their skills so that they are empowered to make decisions about their own lives and futures.
Lopika*, from Nepal, was just 16 when her parents told her they had found a boy who would be good for her to marry. “If I had been married so young, it would have been like a suicide,” she said.
“I might get pregnant and giving birth wouldn’t be easy. It’s a risk for my physical health and wouldn’t be good for my mental health either. I would have to obey my in-laws and my fate would depend on them. I would feel like my life is dark and lonely.”
Instead, Lopika spoke with facilitators at Plan International Nepal’s Children’s Club, who were able to put her in touch with local partners FOHRE, which helped her to persuade her parents to prevent the marriage just before it was due to take place Plan International is calling for development actors, technology organisations, donors and governments to ensure a gender lens is applied to every step of the process of designing and applying new technologies and online solutions.
We must strengthen partnerships and engage tech giants
The organisation also recommends strengthening partnerships between development actors and private sector players and technological giants to create new technologies to further accelerate efforts in ending child marriage.
Ms Dengle added: “Our mapping of digital technologies is designed to inspire others to innovate, and to consider a selection of digital solutions.
“Plan International, and other development organisations working in this space must create a long-term, sustainable strategy when developing new technologies or integrating existing technologies into programmes designed to eradicate child marriage.
“This is vital, because the challenge of CEFM is complex, and the root causes are multiple. But we strongly believe that digital solutions can improve educational outcomes, empower youth economically, protect young people from violence and improve sexual and reproductive health. All of these things will help us achieve our goal of eliminating child marriage by 2030.”