An Indian child bride
An Indian child bride Reuters

A new report released by UNICEF, the children's agency of the UN, says that South Asian countries have the highest number of child brides in the world.,

The data provided by the agency revealed that there are 290 million child brides in the region. It said that these account for as many as 45 per cent of child brides in the world. The agency has called for government intervention to put an end to this practice.

The report's findings may come as a shock, but this is not unheard of in countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal, and the Maldives. It is a global problem, but it is particularly widespread in African and Indo-Pacific countries.

The governments in these countries have tried to deal with the issue by increasing the legal age of marriage, but that has not deterred people from marrying off their young daughters.

The UN agency found that in several regions in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal, parents thought it was best to marry off their young daughters due to the limitations posed by COVID-19 lockdowns.

Schools and colleges were forced to shut down and conduct classes online during COVID-induced lockdowns. Most of these families did not have the option to help their children continue studying because of their poor financial conditions.

Online education required access to smartphones, computers, and laptops, and many of these families did not have the means and ways to provide the same. This had a huge impact on children's education.

The UN study also said that families were pushed to marry their daughters early so they could reduce the economic burden of feeding one more person. The organisation has now called for more efforts to rid the world of this practice.

"We must do more and strengthen partnerships to empower girls through education, including comprehensive sexuality education, and equipping them with skills, while supporting communities to come together to end this deeply rooted practice," said Björn Andersson, Asia-Pacific regional director of the United Nations Population Fund.

Meanwhile, a survey from 2021 found that nearly one in five young women were married before the age of 18. The UN also stated that "up to 10 million more girls are likely to become child brides by 2030 due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic," apart from the 100 million female children that were projected to be at risk before 2020.

Gender inequality, poverty, and violence against women and girls are major factors in child marriage. It frequently happens in rural areas, where tradition and a lack of education dictate protocol.

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), more than 650 million women alive today were married as children globally.

Child marriage affects a girl's physical and mental health and limits her future prospects. In such cases, marriage often leads to early pregnancy. In many South Asian countries, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among adolescent girls, per data provided by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Early and forced marriage also puts these girls at risk of getting sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. They also face a greater risk of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and forced pregnancies because they are married off young.

Child brides are often isolated from attending school or accessing education and are forced into domestic activities for a lifetime.

Child marriage is a product of poverty and patriarchy, and girls are often seen as burdens in these countries. Dowry deaths and female infanticide are rampant in countries like India and Pakistan.

According to the UN, recent statistics show that 26 percent of women aged 15 and older, approximately 641 million, have been victims of physical and/or sexual violence by a husband or intimate partner at least once in their lifetime.

The aforementioned reports are a testimony to the fact that simply passing laws is not going to deter people from putting their daughters' lives at risk. More needs to be done to prevent child marriages in these countries that value their sons more than their daughters.