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Crises like climate change and COVID hamper efforts to curb child marriage

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Every year, an estimated 12 million girls worldwide become brides. That's according to a new report by UNICEF, which finds that, despite progress made in eliminating child marriage, it's still widespread. And as NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee reports, recent worldwide developments have hurt efforts to stop this practice.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: For decades, countries around the world have been trying to prevent child marriages. Some of those efforts have paid off, says Claudia Cappa. She's senior adviser with UNICEF and an author of the report.

CLAUDIA CAPPA: Over the last 25 years, 68 million child marriages have been averted.

CHATTERJEE: She says the biggest declines were in South Asia in countries like India and Bangladesh.

CAPPA: But the report also indicates that the progress is not universal and it's not fast enough.

CHATTERJEE: Parts of sub-Saharan Africa have some of the highest prevalence of child marriages in the world, and ongoing crises like armed conflicts, the pandemic and climate change have led to more child marriages. For example, a change in rainfall patterns from climate change can tip farming families into poverty.

Sarah Barnes is a maternal health expert at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

SARAH BARNES: When a family or a community experiences crises, there tends to be an increase in child marriages.

CHATTERJEE: Because they believe that marrying their daughters off early will give them a more secure future. But research shows that child marriage puts girls at a greater risk of staying poor.

BARNES: Girls who marry as children are less likely to complete secondary education.

CHATTERJEE: That means fewer economic opportunities for them. And girls who marry early are also more likely to get pregnant as teenagers.

BARNES: And complications during pregnancy and childbirth is the number one cause of death for girls 15 to 19.

CHATTERJEE: On the other hand, women who marry as adults are more likely to complete their education and have fewer kids, which means a healthier and more economically secure future for themselves and their children.

Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.