Girls as young as 12 are being forced into marriage at “alarming rates” in the Horn of Africa, Unicef has warned, as the worst drought in 40 years is pushing families to make desperate choices to survive.
Across the region, at least 18 million people are facing food shortages, as the third drought to hit in 11 years has been exacerbated by spiralling prices triggered by the war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, 1.8 million children are severely malnourished.
The crisis and resulting upheaval shows few signs of abating, and concerns are rising about the consequences for women and girls.
“As a woman, I feel the impending doom in my gut,” said Elizabeth Myendo, disaster response manager at the charity Tearfund.
According to Unicef analysis, child marriage has more than doubled in a year in the three regions of Ethiopia most affected by the drought.
Growing numbers of impoverished parents are marrying off their daughters to secure dowries to help support the rest of the family, “to have one less mouth to feed”, or in an attempt to help the bride enter a better-off household, the UN agency said.
“We are seeing alarming rates of child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) across the Horn of Africa – with some destitute families arranging to marry off girls as young as 12 to men more than five times their age,” said Andy Brooks, Unicef’s regional child protection advisor for Eastern and Southern Africa. “These are not decisions families are taking lightly.”
‘Child marriage ends childhoods’
In parts of the region, FGM – a non-medical practice where the genitals are cut – is a precursor to marriage. Although data is limited, analysis of available figures in three of Ethiopia’s worst hit areas found cases of FGM rose by 27 per cent between January and April 2022, compared the same timeframe in 2021.
A similar trend has been identified in Kenya. Fourteen of the 23 counties affected by drought are already FGM hotspots, and prevalence rates have risen by 98 per cent.
“Child marriage and FGM end childhoods – driving girls out of school and leaving them more vulnerable to domestic violence and a lifetime of poverty,” Mr Brooks said. “The figures we have do not capture the magnitude of the problem: large swathes of the Horn of Africa have no specialist facilities where cases can be reported.”
The surge in child marriage is a reversal of decades of progress. Prior to this year, 40 per cent of girls in the region were getting married under the age of 18, compared with 70 per cent three decades ago.
As the crisis deepens, girls are in increasing danger of leaving school and being made to seek employment, putting them at higher risk of child marriage and FGM.
The number of children at risk of dropping out of school in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia due to the impact of the drought has tripled in the space of three months – from 1.1 million to an estimated 3.3 million children.
“Girls are more likely to be taken out of education as food becomes scarce,” said Ms Myendo. “Travelling further to find food also makes women and girls more vulnerable to sexual violence and exploitation.
“And as dents in male pride and dignity deepen, women are often blamed, leaving them vulnerable to physical abuse and mental health issues,” she added.
Domestic and sexual violence is also rising, according to Unicef. One analysis in Somaliland earlier this year found almost a quarter of people reported a rise in gender-based violence amid the drought. In some areas, this figure rose to 50 per cent.
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