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An estimated 2.5 million girls globally are at risk of being forced into child marriage in the next five years due to mounting economic pressures related to the COVID-19 global pandemic, according to humanitarian aid organization Save the Children.
The report, "Global Girlhood 2020: COVID-19 and Progress in Peril," which was released to the public Thursday, found that girls in parts of Africa and South America were especially vulnerable to child marriages. However, no region is expected to come close to being hit as hard as South Asia, forecast to have as many as 200,000 girls at risk in 2020.
The new analysis showed that nine of the 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriages are considered fragile states.
In April, the U.N. said there could be as many as 13 million more child marriages globally over the next decade as a result of the pandemic.
Researchers say that the pandemic has increased poverty around the world, which has resulted in a spike of girls being forced out of school and into work or marriage.
Bill Chambers, president and CEO of the British-based charity, said girls are far less likely to have the opportunity to return to school to pursue an education compared to boys.
"A growing risk of violence and sexual exploitation, combined with growing food and economic insecurity, also means many parents feel they have little alternative but to force their young daughters to marry older men," said Chambers.
Save the Children expects roughly 1 million additional pregnancies as a result of child marriage in 2020 alone.
The analysis found that as a result of the pandemic, efforts over the last 25 years to decrease early marriages around the world will be set back. If no action is taken to combat the sharply anticipated increase, the charity expects there could be 62 million marriages by 2025.
Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell, chief executive of Girls Not Brides, a group that campaigns to end child marriages, said that providing financial support, increased monitoring and more community engagement are key factors in ensuring girls can continue their education.
In its report, Save the Children called upon global leaders set to come together virtually for the U.N. General Assembly in New York Thursday to make serious commitments to increasing the progress for gender equality. The meeting marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Women's Conference, which in 1995 led all governments to commit to a "Platform for Action" to achieve equality for women and girls.
Of the 190 countries that have participated in the U.N. General Assembly over the past week, only nine of the leaders representing their nations have been women.
Karen Flanagan, Save the Children Australia's principal adviser on child protection, said that a renewed and increased commitment to protecting girls around the world is vital.
"These marriages violate girls' rights and leave them at increased risk of depression, lifelong violence, disabilities, and even death - including from childbirth - given their bodies simply aren't ready to bear children," said Flanagan.