Motherhood too soon? Child, early, and forced marriage and adolescent pregnancy in COVID-19

April Houston 11th May 2020
Syrian sisters Haneen, 14, (left) and Sidra, 13, (right) join friend Reem, 14, (centre) in a peer to peer support group for Syrian and Jordanian teens at a CARE community centre in Irbid, Jordan. Syrian sisters Haneen, 14, (left) and Sidra, 13, (right) join friend Reem, 14, (centre) in a peer to peer support group for Syrian and Jordanian teens at a CARE community centre in Irbid, Jordan.

May 10th was Mother’s Day in many parts of the world – a day when families celebrate motherhood and honour mothers’ contributions to their children, the community, and the world.

It takes a lot of love, effort, and dedication to be a good mother. For that reason, we believe it is important that everyone has the choice whether or not to be a parent, and when to take on that responsibility. Unfortunately, many women and girls around the world do not get to choose; and the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to make the problem worse.

Emergencies can increase child, early and forced marriage and can lead to a rise in adolescent pregnancies

UNFPA recently reported that lockdowns and the resulting service and supply chain disruptions are hitting women and girls especially hard, making it difficult for them to access sexual and reproductive health information and services, including contraceptives. Adolescents have trouble accessing these services even in the best of times due to harmful social norms and policies. Adolescent girls face heightened risks, such as early marriage or transactional sex, in the world of COVID-19 that may cause them to become mothers earlier than is desired or recommended. In general, complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for 15–19-year-old girls globally.

The Ebola epidemic can teach us a lot about how a pandemic affects adolescent girls. Studies from the Ebola response indicate that school closures and increased barriers to accessing contraception among adolescents resulted in increased sexual activity and unplanned pregnancies. We also know from our work in crisis-settings around the world that emergencies often result in increased rates of child, early, and forced marriage (CEFM). This is a significant driver of adolescent pregnancy in low-income countries, especially in places affected by conflict and crisis. UNFPA warns that the pandemic may result in 13 million more child marriages between 2020 and 2030 as poverty increases and programs designed to prevent CEFM are scaled back due to lack of funds or restrictions on gatherings and movement.

What is CARE doing?

CARE works to respond to and prevent this situation to meet the unique needs of adolescents around the world. In Niger, through the IMAGINE initiative, CARE and CADEL are implementing a holistic intervention package that builds girls’ agency, presents alternative economic opportunities so that early motherhood is not their only option, and builds family and community support for delaying motherhood. While the project is facing new challenges in delivering the full package of programming during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are adapting to the new context and remain focused on engaging project participants in savings groups and income generating activities. These groups serve as a source of resiliency during this time, ensuring girls have information on where to access contraceptives and how to reach their local health provider and receive referrals to GBV support services. However, as COVID-19 cases increase in the country, continuing critical activities become increasingly difficult as more restrictions are imposed on field activities, especially when working with a population with low mobile phone coverage and limited internet connectivity.

In northwest Syria, through the AMAL initiative CARE, UNFPA and Syria Relief and Development support pregnant adolescents and first time mothers to improve their sexual and reproductive health and well-being through advancement of gender, social and power norms. Although COVID-19 has hindered the initiative’s ability to deliver this full package of programming, CARE and its partners are working to adapt this approach to continue to build a support system among marginalised adolescent mothers and ensure continuity of access to life-saving sexual and reproductive health services.

In Nepal and Bangladesh, the Tipping Point initiative addresses child marriage by focusing on its root causes. This initiative enables girls to assert their rights, helps families and communities to support them, and influences policy to sustain change. Tipping Point’s synchronised approach is rooted in challenging social expectations and repressive norms and promoting girls-driven movement building and activism; components designed to help adolescent girls find and collectively step into spaces to engage with and tackle inequality. While the measures to contain COVID-19 have stopped group meetings, the program is currently developing ways to reach communities through mobile phones. Additionally, a core piece of the project is girl-led and community supported activism. Therefore, the activists are already in the villages and could potentially help to reduce negative coping mechanisms such as CEFM.

CARE calls attention to the importance of continuity of sexual and reproductive health services during COVID-19, particularly for marginalised groups such as adolescent girls.