The global food crisis, aggravated by the war in Ukraine, is leading to an increase in the number of underage girls being forced into marriage, Canadian aid agencies warn.
Plan International Canada said it has seen a worrying increase in the number of adolescent girls in the developing world being forced into marriage because their families cannot afford to feed them.
Twelve million girls under the age of 18 become child brides every year, forcing them to drop out of school while putting their health at risk through teenage pregnancy, the agency said.
He warned that a 15% decrease in child marriages over the past decade is now being reversed due to pressure on families.
The problem is acute in countries facing food shortages where girls are frequently forced out of school to marry, including South Sudan, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Afghanistan.
Bangladesh has one of the highest levels of child marriage for girls in the world, according to Plan. The country’s crops have been hit by severe flooding this year and it depends on Ukraine for much of its wheat.
Tanjina Mirza, program manager at Plan International Canada, said fewer girls are now being forced into marriage thanks to investments in education in Bangladesh, but this trend is under threat due to poverty, food shortages and the impact of climate change.
She said Plan staff on the ground are reporting that more and more girls are being taken out of school to be married off in areas with severe food shortages.
School meal programs, including those that give students take-home rations to encourage them to stay in school, are closed due to shortages, Mirza said in an interview.
She said Plan was increasing the supply of food, including through school meals programs, to try to keep children in school.
Mirza said hunger affected 345 million people, with Ethiopia, South Sudan, Haiti, Burkina Faso and Niger among the most “food insecure” countries.
She said 50 million people could face starvation in 45 countries this year, and the “needs of girls” – especially adolescent girls – are often ignored when hunger grips a society.
“We are in the grip of a devastating hunger situation which is currently affecting millions of children around the world,” she said. “Food insecurity exposes girls to dangers such as abuse, child labor and child marriage that ease the financial burden on families: having one less mouth to feed and one less child to send to school is, in many cases, a matter of survival”.
She said “parents facing difficult circumstances” arrange marriages for their teenage daughters, but this perpetuates “the cycle of poverty and hunger”.
According to Plan, almost one in five girls is married before the age of 18 worldwide.
Complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19.
World Vision said that in Afghanistan, where more than 22 million people go hungry, girls are being pulled out of school and married off, including into violent homes, because their families cannot afford to feed them.
“Afghanistan is currently facing its worst hunger crisis in living memory. The latest statistics show that… 55% of the population is facing acute levels of food insecurity and malnutrition, and children are starving,” said World Vision Afghanistan Country Director Asuntha Charles. “I can already see the horrible effect on children and especially girls.”
Haley Hodgson, spokesperson for International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan, said he was working “with international partners to hold the Taliban to account for their horrific treatment and discrimination against women and girls”.
The war in Ukraine has deprived the UN World Food Programme, which is among the aid agencies providing food in Afghanistan, of a major source of wheat.
It also drove up the price of grain and fuel, making it more expensive for aid agencies to feed the world’s poor.
Canada, one of the biggest contributors to the World Food Program, is among the countries that condemned Moscow for blockading Ukrainian ports, bombing grain storage silos and stealing Ukrainian wheat.
Ukraine has also accused Russia of exporting stolen Ukrainian wheat, claiming it is Russian, and planting mines in Ukrainian fields so that farmers cannot plant or harvest their crops.
In a bid to ease the global food crisis, Russia and Ukraine last month signed agreements with Turkey and the United Nations to facilitate the export of Ukrainian grain across the Black Sea.
—Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press