Around 2.5 million young girls are at risk of early marriage by 2025 due to the coronavirus pandemic, a charity has warned.
Save the Children described the numbers as the greatest surge in child marriage rates in the last 25 years, reversing progress made towards ending the practice.
This year, an estimated 500,000 more girls are at risk of being forced into child marriages, with an extra one million expected to become pregnant.
These numbers are in addition to the 12 million girls anticipated to become victims of child marriage already.
The rise in numbers is attributed to the economic consequences the coronavirus pandemic has had, pushing more families into poverty.
South Asia is expected to see the largest increase, with nearly 200,000 more girls at risk of child marriage this year.
If action is not taken, around 61 million child marriages could be seen by 2025.
Karen Flanagan, a child protection advocate for the charity, said “we believe this is the tip of the iceberg”, as the figures only account for known cases.
She added that an increase in poverty because of COVID-19 means many girls are forced “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”.
Ms Flanagan continued: “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 added that while 78.6 million child marriages have been prevented over the last 25 years, progress to end the practice “has slowed to a halt”.
The charity has called on world leaders to commit to speeding up progress on child marriage and gender equality.