Underage marriages increase in Lebanon during pandemic

Aid groups in Lebanon say the country’s ongoing economic crisis, compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, is forcing more children into underage marriages.

“From what we have been able to observe in the field and from what our local partners are telling us, we believe that child marriage is increasing as a result of the difficult circumstances here today,” Johanna Eriksson, who heads UNICEF’s Child Protection Program in Lebanon, told DW. “It is just one of the negative coping mechanisms that people here are resorting to.”

Farah Salhab, of the Save the Children organization in Lebanon, said: “Since the pandemic, we have seen a direct link between COVID-19 and a rise in child marriage.”

In March, UNICEF put out a statement saying the pandemic could result in as many as 10 million more girls being put at risk of being married over the next decade worldwide. Although some young boys are forced into marriage, this problem mostly affects young girls. 

Researchers who study the topic have concluded that the health and economic crisis in Lebanon are creating the kinds of conditions they already know will increase the number of underage betrothals.

Plan International, an organization that focuses on children’s rights, looked at what happened during past crises — for instance, the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa — to compile a May 2020 report on children living under lockdown. School closures had a huge impact, the organization found. Depending on such factors as whether families ask for dowries, Plan International concluded that school closures could increase a child’s probability of being forced into marriage by 25%.

Because remote learning simply wasn’t possible for many children in Lebanon, a lot of girls dropped out of school altogether, Salhab said: “We have spoken to girls who told us they were forced to get married after leaving secondary school.”

Even if schools in Lebanon were to reopen tomorrow, there will still be a lot of girls who never return to class, Eriksson said.