A young girl wearing a mask sits outside her home in Manila. Photo: AFP / Maria Tan

“I know two girls who have just gotten married during this pandemic,” said Huu, a Vietnamese girl. “I truly think that education offers us a chance to a brighter future. However, due to the current pandemic, many girls are giving up their learning opportunities for marriage because of the new economic hardship.”

Stories like this have been all too common in Asia, with many girls having been forced to end full-time education in order to get married, as their families struggled to put food on the table. The current global health crisis is rapidly making things worse. 

Violence against children threatens to escalate dramatically because of the Covid-19 pandemic, with girls disproportionately affected. For many girls, this and the additional risks of child marriage or forced marriage could become more of a threat than the virus itself, unless we take concrete steps to protect vulnerable and at-risk girls. 

While children in Asia have been seemingly spared the worst direct health effects of Covid-19, it has exposed millions of girls to the risk of violence, abuse and exploitation during lockdowns and extended periods of movement restrictions. With parents and caregivers also stuck at home, unable to earn a living, households that were already stressful environments risk now becoming dangerous for millions of girls across Asia. 

Girls face unique risks to sexual and gender-based violence because of Covid-19.  According to the United Nations, for every three months the lockdown continues globally, an extra 15 million gender-based violence cases are to be expected.

Where schools have been closed, girls miss out on the protective elements associated with formal education such as life skills, access to essential information and services, and other forms of support.

We at Save the Children and Plan International worry that without the daily routine of education and protection of teachers or caregivers, out-of-school girls also face increased risks from violence or abuse at the hands of relatives, neighbors, or those within their communities, and in some cases may never return to school once they reopen.  

Covid-19 has also put girls at higher risk of violence in the home. In India for example, a national child hotline received 92,000 calls reporting domestic violence in just the first 11 days of lockdown – an increase of 50% on pre-Covid levels.

Domestic violence cases have doubled in Thailand during the quarantine period. Similar rises have been recorded in countries across the region including Bangladesh, Singapore and Malaysia.

In Bangladesh, April’s national impact and needs assessment compiled by a range of stakeholders including World Vision revealed that beatings by parents or guardians had increased by 42%; that there was a 40% increase of calls to the child helpline; and that 50% of those interviewed said the safety and security of girls was an issue in the lockdown.

The combination of school closures and long-term economic distress could undo much of the progress made on reducing levels of child marriage across Asia over the past few decades. The UN estimates that this result in an additional 13 million child marriages worldwide over the next 10 years. 

The pandemic has also seen a disturbing increase in online violence against girls. As quarantine means children spend more time online to access their education, social media or other forms of entertainment, they are increasingly exposed to cyberbullying, harmful content and sexual exploitation.

One teenage girl in Nepal told us: “During the lockdown period me and my friends are mostly on social media, and there are cases of harassment. For example, a stranger approached one of my friends on social media, and they started talking. Now this boy is threatening her. If she tells her parents then they will react negatively, and rather than helping, they will blame my friend.”

Support services must be prioritized as an essential and life-saving component of the response to Covid-19 across Asia. Vital services must remain open, safe, accessible and funded for girls and women who need support. Hotlines that are supporting child victims of sexual violence must be bolstered both financially and through capacity-building, so they can better respond to concerns.

The Covid-19 pandemic is threatening to reverse decades of progress achieved across the Asia-Pacific region in reducing violence against children, particularly girls. Regional leaders and governments need to take urgent action to ensure that every girl has the opportunity to grow and develop free from violence and fear, fully protected, respected and empowered.

We cannot accept a post-Covid world where countless girls survive the pandemic, only to be denied their rights and dreams. 

Hassan Noor is Asia regional director for Save the Children.

Bhagyashri Dengle is Asia-Pacific regional director for Plan International, an independent organization that works to advance children’s rights and equality for girls.