An estimated 5,00,000 more girls are at a risk of being forced into child marriage and as many as one million more are expected to become pregnant this year as a result of the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The estimation was revealed in new report by Save the Children titled "Global Girlhood 2020: COVID-19 and progress in peril".
South Asia is expected to be hardest hit, with nearly 200,000 more girls at risk of child marriage in 2020, mentioned the report that analysed the impact of Covid-19 on gender equality, revealing its devastating effects.
The practice is also expected to rise in East Asia and the Pacific (61,000), Europe and Central Asia (37,000) and the Middle East and North Africa (14,400).
The increase comes on top of the previously estimated rates of child marriage, which already anticipated 12 million girls being forced into marriage this year. While this increase represents a conservative estimate, it marks a significant surge in child marriage rates with an expected spike in teenage pregnancies and school dropouts to follow.
The increase is set to reverse 25 years of progress, which saw child marriage rates decline, it said.
According to the report, 16-year-old Sunita of India's Bihar state was forced to marry and leave school at the age of 12. She now advocates against child marriage in her village, participating in community events to raise awareness of girls' rights.
Sunita said she felt terrible because she was still very young and was attending school with her friends. "All my dreams were shattered at that moment," she said. "My message to all girls my age would be to delay your marriage and do whatever it takes to fulfil your dreams."
According to Inger Ashing, CEO of Save the Children International, the pandemic means more families are being pushed into poverty, forcing many girls to work to support their families, to go without food, to become the main caregivers for sick family members, and to drop out of school -- with far less of a chance than boys of ever returning.
"A growing risk of violence and sexual exploitation combined with growing food and economic insecurity -- especially in humanitarian emergencies -- also means many parents feel they have little alternative but to force their girls to marry men who are often much older. These marriages violate girls' rights and leave them at increased risk of depression, lifelong violence, disabilities, and even death -- including from childbirth, given their bodies simply aren't ready to bear children" she said.
"Every year, around 12 million girls are married off, two million [of them] before their 15th birthday. Half a million more girls are now at risk of this gender-based violence this year alone -- and these are only the ones we know about. We believe this is the tip of the iceberg," she added.
As world leaders prepare to meet at the UN General Assembly in New York today to make commitments to speed up progress for gender inequality on the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Women's Conference -- which, in 1995, led all governments to commit to a "Platform for Action" to achieve equality for women and girls --, Save the Children is calling on them to raise girls' voices by supporting their right to safe and meaningful participation in all public decision-making processes during the Covid-19 response, recovery and beyond.
It also recommends actions to address immediate and on-going risks of gender-based violence, end child marriage and support girls who are already married to realise their rights, invest in girls with new and not repackaged investments and count every one of them with improved data collection.