Digital solutions the key to ending child marriage

Throughout the global COVID-19 pandemic, everyday life has increasingly moved online.

For those of us living in Australia - that has meant more Zoom meetings, working and studying remotely and enduring COVID lockdowns. But for many girls in the Asia Pacific region and globally, it has resulted in a tragic increase in child, early and forced marriages.

In fact, globally some 650 million girls and women have already been affected by this harmful practice, and today 1 in every 5 girls is married off before the age of 18.

This has devastating consequences, often robbing girls of an education, restricting their future work opportunities, and limiting their participation in public life.

It also places them at increased risk of domestic violence.

The COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately made the situation worse - estimated to have put an additional 13 million girls at risk of early, forced and child marriage.

As COVID has led to increased levels of poverty, many of these girls have been forced to leave school and enter into early marriage out of economic necessity or from coercion within their communities.

But, as a new report Time to act: Let's Go Digital: Ending Child, Early and Forced Marriage Through Digital Technology released this week by Plan International shows, a solution to tackling child marriage in our region may be found online.

Given the fact that governments around the world have committed to eliminating child marriage by 2030 as part of the UN's sustainable development goals, this new research provides a vital pathway to achieving this vital goal.

The online world offers new threats, but also new opportunities. The challenge and opportunity of COVID-19 is that we are having to harness what we have access to when things go in and out of shut down - although we may not be able to visit a health clinic in lockdown, we can obtain sexual and reproductive info online.

Since the start of the pandemic, online platforms and mobile applications have been used to raise awareness of imminent risks and threats of child marriage.

The online space is becoming one of the main channels of reporting suspected cases of early and forced marriage to law enforcement agencies globally.

On top of the opportunities for reporting the online space offers, digital technologies can also be leveraged to meet the scale of the problem and have real world impacts.

The online space is now ubiquitous and unparalleled in its potential to reach so many people.

Moreover, it provides anonymity to discuss taboo subjects such as reproductive and sexual health, offers the opportunity to create information sharing networks, and can help facilitate safe online spaces can be a lifeline to victims of gender-based violence - while reducing young people's risks of exposure to child marriage.

Susanne Legena is chief executive of Plan International Australia, the charity for girls' equality.

This story Digital solutions the key to ending child marriage first appeared on The Canberra Times.