This blog summarises the findings, insights and recommendations shared by our expert panel of speakers during the webinar “Social Protection and Child Marriage during COVID-19: Evidence, Practices and Opportunities", which was held on July 30, 2020. The speakers were Nicola Jones, Principal Research Fellow at ODI; Nankali Maksud, Senior Adviser on Child Protection at UNICEF; Rachel Yates, Director of Learning at Girls Not Brides; and Tia Palermo, Associate Professor at the University of Buffalo.
Drivers of child marriage and the current evidence base
All speakers noted the multiple drivers of child marriage, including poverty and deep rooted social and gender norms. They also emphasized that COVID-19 is having an impact in a number of ways, including (1) exacerbating economic and food insecurity; (2) disruption to schooling and other services; and (3) increased adolescent pregnancy.
Tia Palermo introduced the evidence base, highlighting that there has been increasing interest in how social protection might reduce child marriage – yet social protection programmes rarely have specific objectives on this. For example, during COVID-19, early analysis of the large (1000+) social protection measures indicate no mention of child marriage in any programmes.
However, there is broader evidence that social protection, including cash transfers (CT), can often have protective impacts. There is growing evidence specifically on adolescent and youth mental health, violence against children, and intimate partner violence. She also highlighted that the current evidence base is variable and not currently available in humanitarian contexts, and provided a rapid overview of the relevant rigorous evaluations:
- Ethiopia’s PSNP and Malawi’s Zomba (unconditional CTs) saw reductions in child marriage.
- A lump sum conditional cash transfer programme in India had mixed results (reduced child marriage but viewed to have been misinterpreted as a contribution to dowries at 18).
- A number of rigorously evaluated social protection programmes indicated no impacts on child marriage
- No rigorously evaluated studies to date show an increase in child marriage as a result of social protection interventions.
Tia concluded that some view that CTs alone are unlikely to deliver results on child marriage, and should be part of integrated programming to reduce child marriage. Tia emphasized the need to consider context-specific drivers of child marriage, social protection programme design characteristics, and the existing capacity of systems.
New research on adolescent experiences during COVID-19
Nicola Jones provided an overview of the Gender and Adolescence Global Evidence (GAGE) global research programme, following 20,000 young people over a 9-year period. She gave insights into how – through pivoting to virtual research methods during COVID-19 – GAGE has provided new evidence on the effect of COVID-19 and governments’ responses in child marriage and married girls. In terms of impact on child marriage, what comes out very strongly in the research is the severe psycho-social toll the pandemic has had on already vulnerable adolescents. Particular fears related to the shutdown of schools and socio-economic crisis. In the period of research (April – June 2020), in Jordan and Lebanon, stay-at-home orders have reduced household income and rendered marriage festivities too expensive in the short-term. In some parts of Ethiopia, the research indicates a large increase in marriage – school closure and district-level employees prevented from usual travel has been linked to a decrease in surveillance and reporting of child marriage risks. It is key to look at the re-enrollment of girls into school post-lockdown. Nicola also shared how COVID-19 has impacted the lives of married girls, including the escalation of food insecurity and poverty; more time having to be spent collecting water; an increase in gender-based violence; extreme levels of emotional distress; and the limitation of Sexual and Reproductive Health (SHR) services.
Nicola noted that adolescents involved in GAGE’s research have seen very limited evidence of the reported increase in social protection support during the pandemic. She emphasized that based on the evidence base to date, it is critical for girls to have options aside from marriage and motherhood. Social protection has a role in addressing some (but not all) of the drivers of child marriage:
- Cash and stipends can help keep girls in school
- In-kind support can help girls succeed in education, including school feeding
- Cash and food vouchers may reduce the need to rely on child marriage as a coping strategy
- Cash and vouchers may reduce household stress levels and Gender-Based Violence (GBV) that may be triggers for girls to accept marriage to escape stressful home environments
Nicola also recommended considering four key adjustments for better impact on child marriage:
- Support education through social protection, including a sizeable cash incentive for re-enrollment
- Increase transfer amounts to effectively tackle potential drivers: economic and food insecurity
- Link social protection to SRHR awareness and access to SRH services
The UNICEF-UNFPA Global Programme to End Child Marriage
Nankali Maksud shared the approach taken by the Global Programme to End Child Marriage, which operates in 12 countries within South Asia, Western and Southern Africa, East and Central Africa, and the Middle East. Besides the key drivers of child marriage already captured above, Nankali also noted the additional body of knowledge where child marriage is not only happening in coercive contexts – where there is lack of opportunity and in conservative communities, some adolescents elope or marry early voluntarily.
The Global Programme (GP) to End Child Marriage has recently finished its first phase (2016-2019), in which social protection had less of a focus. Based on the lessons learnt and emerging evidence, in the second phase of the programme a number of shifts are being made, including highlighting social protection more and at multiple levels, and taking a more gender-transformative approach. The Global Programme looks to address child marriage through direct support to marginalised girls, engagement with their family and community, systems-strengthening, addressing drivers of poverty, and enhancing laws and policies to respond to child marriage. Nankali emphasized that social protection is a core part of the strategy for the Global Programme, with an indicator on the proportion of adolescent girls benefiting from social protection, poverty reduction and economic empowerment programmes.
Country specific examples supported by the Global Programme include:
- Adolescent-girl focused cash plus programmes in India, providing support to several government-led programmes, such as a cash transfer programme in West Bengal, which is reaching 4.3 million girls linked to education and child marriage outcomes.
- Safe spaces for marginalised girls who are programme participants in the LEAP cash transfer programme, aiming to equip girls with life skills, including adolescent sexual and reproductive knowledge.
- In Zambia, the GP is working closely with the World Bank on the national social protection programme, through a case management approach to ensure marginalised girls can attend school.
Nankali also emphasized the need for multi-sectoral, integrated programming given the complex drivers of child marriage; clear theories of change; greater understanding of the causal pathways; and investment in data and evidence.
COVID-19 presents a real threat to progress on child marriage – and social protection is a key part of the response
Rachel Yates highlighted the UNFPA modelling which suggests that, as a result of COVID-19, by 2030 an additional 13 million child marriages could occur. It is estimated that of these, 5.6 million marriages will be a result of the reduction in GDP. Girls Not Brides collaborates with over 1400 organisations in more than 95 countries working on this issue, and it has received alarming reports from many institutions worldwide – particular for the poorest households. These include:
- Girls being left behind by digital learning approaches to education during lockdown – and not returning to school as a result of economic and social drivers.
- An increase in violence against girls and women and the lack of associated response services
- Similar findings to the GAGE research in terms of psychological health, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) services, and the potential for dramatic increases in child marriage in some contexts as lockdowns lift.
Rachel emphasized that, given the socio-economic shocks that COVID-19 presents, it is critical to start planning for gender-responsive social protection now in order to mitigate the immediate impacts and for long-term recovery.
There was strong consensus across the panel that we need to tackle social and economic drivers of child marriage together, and that social protection can contribute to tackling child marriage working alongside other interventions. Rachel suggested that promising areas for practice were looking to:
- Combine economic interventions with social norms work.
- Prioritise getting girls back into school (including through removal of school fees).
- Adapting cash transfer programming to build in broader impact measures of adolescent wellbeing.
- Gender-transformative cash plus models (e.g. combined with life skills, mentoring, savings, parenting support, community conversations, mass media approaches for normative changes, etc).
Rachel also noted the importance of consulting with young people and civil society in the design of interventions and to support accountability for social protection and gender-responsive programming. For example, Young Voices India consulted with approximately 2500 young participants (12-25 years) from some of the most marginalised communities across 15 states in India, asking for what they want most from the government. One significant ask from young people was the call for “social and financial support for our parents so that those of us who are vulnerable to child marriage may get more years of school and automatically marry when we are older”. Rachel concluded by noting the need for more dialogue between the social protection, gender and child protection communities at a national level.
The webinar finished with an interesting Q&A, accessible here.
This blog post summarises the twenty-fifth webinar of the “Social protection responses to COVID-19” webinar series. The series is a joint effort initiated by the IPC-IG, GIZ on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), and the Australia Government's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) collaboration with the socialprotection.org platform, and in cooperation with partners from different organisations. Join the online community ''Social protection responses to COVID-19 [Task force]'' to learn more about the initiative and future webinars.
The SPIAC-B Gender Working Group, consisting of representatives from several agencies, including UNICEF, DFID, FAO, IPC-IG, UNICEF Innocenti, UN Women among others, is organising webinars of the larger Social Protection responses to COVID-19 webinar series. You can join the Gender-Responsive Social Protection Online Community if you are interested in learning about the gender impacts of COVID-19.