Up to 2.5 million more girls around the world are at risk of being forced into child marriage over the next five years as a result of the impact of Covid-19, according to a report by Save the Children.

The charity predicts the worst surge in rates of child marriage in 25 years, as the pandemic has shuttered schools and pushed poor families further into destitution.

According to the report, Global Girlhood 2020: how Covid-19 is putting progress in peril, half a million more girls will be pushed into arranged marriage this year alone, reversing more than two decades of progress that had begun to push the practice into decline globally. It will bring the total number of child marriages to around 12.5m in 2020.

The report warns of 2020 being a year of “irreversible setbacks and lost progress” for girls. Around the world, school closures have interrupted the education of 1.6 billion children, and Save the Children estimates that 10 million children, mostly girls, will never return to school.

The report also predicts that a million more girls under 18 could fall pregnant this year, putting lives at risk with childbirth still the leading cause of death among 15- to 19-year-olds.

The worst affected region for the surge in child marriage is south Asia, where almost 200,000 more girls are expected to be forced into wedlock this year owing to economic strife caused by coronavirus.

India, which accounts for a third of all child marriages globally, has been one of the worst affected countries in the pandemic, both in terms of health and economy. The country has reported upwards of 6m cases of the virus, the second worst in the world, and its numbers are rising at the fastest rate globally.

A lockdown instigated in March with just a few hours’ notice left millions of migrant and daily wage workers without any means to earn an income, pushing millions of families further into destitution. India’s economy contracted by almost 24% in the last quarter, the worst decline on record, and even after lockdown was lifted, industry and therefore work opportunities have been hugely reduced.

With parents from low-income families unable to find work and schools closed indefinitely, in India the onus is falling on children to either go out to work or be forced into marriage.

Kevin Watkins, the chief executive of Save the Children UK, said: “A growing risk of violence and sexual exploitation combined with growing food and economic insecurity – especially in humanitarian emergencies – 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 from childbirth.”

The pandemic has also led to an increase in reports of child labour and child trafficking in India. Reports from poverty-stricken Indian states such as Jharkhand suggest that the number of children trafficked increased by more than 600% in April and May, during the lockdown.

The International Labour Organization recently said the coronavirus pandemic may lead to an increase in child labour for the first time in 20 years.

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