In this guest post, Helen McCabe discusses whether COVID-19 will set back the aim of ending forced marriage.
Governments need to act regarding the impact of COVID-19 on women. More than that, they need to ensure future responses to pandemics don’t perpetuate sexism or exacerbate unequal impacts on women. This necessitates acknowledging the damage currently being done and committing to learning from this example.
UN Women recently warned that “even the limited gains” towards women’s equality made in the last quarter-century “are at risk of being rolled back”:
The pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities … Across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated for women and girls simply by virtue of their sex.
If we can say the virus itself discriminates in any way, it seems to discriminate against men: but societies, institutions, and a great many people discriminate – consciously and unconsciously – against women. So do our responses to this disease. For example:
- Women are more likely to take on child-caring responsibilities during school closures, or if relatives get sick, with a knock-on effect on their careers and earnings.
- Women make up 70% of all health-care workers globally and do the vast majority of unpaid care-work around the world.
- Women are more likely to be affected by domestic violence than men, a crime which has increased during lockdown, as has gender-based violence.
Another lesser-known impact of the pandemic on women concerns forced marriage – the focus of my research. There are no clear statistics about forced marriage available globally, and estimates differ widely. The International Labour Organisation’s “conservative” estimate is that 15.4 million people were living in forced marriages on any given day in 2016. Walk Free Foundation estimates forced marriage to be most prevalent in Africa (affecting 4.8 out of every 1000 people), but it is a phenomenon which affects people across the globe. In the UK, in 2018, the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) provided support for 1507 cases of suspected forced marriage.
Although there are male victims, the vast majority of people forced into marriage are female. There are a number of factors which increase vulnerability to forced marriage, including food security, climate change, conflict, educational and employment opportunities, and the existence of support networks.
Government responses to COVID-19 have increased women’s vulnerability. School closures limit educational access for girls. Teachers, and other third parties, are less able to spot signs of risk and seek help. Women have been forced to “stay at home” with potentially abusive family-members, where they are more vulnerable to coercive control. Restrictions on mixing households have made it harder to access support (e.g. women’s refuges) or leave high-risk situations.
A fundamental cause of forced marriage is the patriarchy. Women – particularly in-laws and relatives – can and do forced people to marry. But patriarchy is at the root. By this I mean, specifically: the male desire, and a belief that they have the right, to control women’s behaviour, sexuality, and sexual activity. Viewing women as objects of economic and/or social value who “belong” to men and can be disposed of by them at will. Seeing women as being less important than men. Seeing women’s purpose and destiny as marriage, motherhood, and tending to a man’s needs. Viewing “women’s work” (particularly cooking, cleaning and child-care) as something both to which men are entitled, and which it would demean them to perform. The belief that men are entitled to have sex with whomever they please, unless another man has staked a prior claim regarding access. This is why one successful kind of intervention by NGOs is talking with fathers. Though this is a very good practical intervention for the non-ideal circumstances of the real world, power remains with men.
Power remains with men, too, in most governments. Some state actions taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 may have served to reduce the risk of forced marriage, including the ban on members of different households meeting, the closure of religious spaces, and restrictions on international travel. But nothing has prevented forced marriages from being planned, or from women being coerced into marrying as soon as lockdown lifts. Fundamental patriarchal and sexist attitudes have not been challenged during the last few months. And the existing unequal impacts of COVID-19 on women remain, and will only be exacerbated in an economic downturn. If a second wave – or, in a few years, another pandemic – comes, it is likely women will bear the brunt again. The likelihood of achieving the Sustainable Development Goal of Gender Equality (including ending child, early and forced marriage) by 2030 becomes ever-more remote.
Governments, then, need to learn lessons from what we are currently seeing, and to implement that learning into future policy. This affects both “recovery” from the social and economic effects of COVID-19, and planning for how governments respond to such exogenous shocks in future. Unfortunately, the patriarchy is not something the government alone can dismantle. And without feminists in government, it is unclear how they would even make a start. At the very least, however, we can be lobbying government, supporting relevant NGOs, and also considering our own personal and institutional practices during, after, and in any future “lockdown”. Concerted action will be needed to ensure women’s equality is not yet another victim of COVID-19, and that progress made towards ending forced marriage is not lost forever.
 See Global Estimates of Slavery 2018.
Helen McCabe is Assistant Professor of Political Theory in the School of Politics and International Relations at University of Nottingham. In January 2020 she started an AHRC Leadership Fellowship looking at the connection between forced marriage and modern slavery, and is also Principal Investigator on a collaborative research project with HAART Kenya and Worldreader on empowerment of survivors of human trafficking affected by COVID-19 via ethical story-telling and participatory photography. She is part of the Rights Lab, a University of Nottingham beacon of research excellence, and the world’s largest interdisciplinary group of modern slavery researchers. You can listen to Helen talking about the connection between forced marriage and modern slavery on The Rights Track, and follow @rightsbeacon to find out more about our anti-slavery research.