OTTAWA — The world food crisis, made worse by the war in Ukraine, is leading to a rise in underage girls being forced into marriage, Canadian aid agencies warn.
Plan International Canada said it has seen a worrying increase in the number of teenage girls in the developing world being forced into marriage because their families cannot afford to feed them.
Twelve million girls under the age of 18 become child brides each year, forcing them to abandon school while putting their health at risk through early pregnancies, the agency said.
It warned a 15 per cent decrease in child marriages over the past decade is now in reverse because of pressure on families.
The problem is acute in countries facing food shortages where girls are frequently forced to leave school to marry, including in South Sudan, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Afghanistan.
Bangladesh has one of the highest levels of underage marriage for girls in the world, according to Plan. The country's crops have been hit by severe flooding this year and it relies on Ukraine for much of its wheat.
Tanjina Mirza, chief programs officer at Plan International Canada, said fewer girls are now being forced into marriage with investment in education in Bangladesh but this trend is under threat due to poverty, food shortages and the impact of climate change.
She said Plan employees on the ground are reporting more girls being pulled out of school to be married in areas with acute food shortages.
School meal programs, including those giving students rations to take home to encourage them to stay in school, are being shut down because of shortages, Mirza said in an interview.
She said Plan is increasing provision of food, including through school meal programs, to try to keep children in school.
Mirza said hunger is affecting 345 million people, with Ethiopia, South Sudan, Haiti, Burkina Faso and Niger among the most "food insecure" countries.
She said 50 million people could face famine across 45 countries this year, and "girls' needs" — particularly adolescent girls — are often ignored when hunger grips a society.
"We are in the grip of a devastating hunger situation that's currently affecting millions of children globally," she said. "Food insecurity exposes girls to dangers such as abuse, child labour and child marriage that lessens the financial burden on families: having one less mouth to feed and one less child to send to school is, in many cases, a matter of survival."
She said "parents facing dire circumstances" are arranging marriages for their teenage daughters, but this is perpetuating "the cycle of poverty and hunger."
According to Plan, nearly one in five girls are married before age 18 around the world.
Complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19.
World Vision said in Afghanistan, where over 22 million people are going hungry, girls are being pulled from school and married off, including into violent homes, because their families can't afford to feed them.
“Afghanistan is now facing its worst hunger crisis in living memory. The latest stats show that … 55 per cent of the population are facing acute levels of food insecurity and malnutrition, and children are dying due to starvation," said World Vision Afghanistan national director Asuntha Charles. "I am already seeing the horrific effect on children and particularly girls."
Reyhana Patel, the director of communications and government relations at Islamic Relief Canada, said its employees working in Afghanistan "are relaying to us the horrific humanitarian crisis unfolding" there.
"We've met with mothers who had to marry off their daughters so they can have food," she said.
Haley Hodgson, spokeswoman for International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan, said he is working "with international partners to hold the Taliban to account for its horrific treatment and discrimination of women and girls."
The war in Ukraine has deprived the UN World Food Program, which is among the aid agencies providing food in Afghanistan, of a major source of wheat.
It has also driven up the price of grain and fuel, making it more expensive for aid agencies to feed the world's poor.
Canada, one of the biggest contributors to the World Food Program, is among the countries to have condemned Moscow for blockading Ukraine's ports, bombing silos storing grain and stealing Ukrainian wheat.
Ukraine has also accused Russia of exporting stolen Ukrainian wheat, claiming it is Russian, and of planting mines in Ukrainian fields so farmers cannot plant or harvest their crops.
In a bid to ease the world food crisis, Russia and Ukraine last month signed agreements with Turkey and the United Nations to aid the export of Ukrainian grain across the Black Sea.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 10, 2022.
Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press