In April 2020, most people around the globe were adjusting to life at home as governments instituted lockdown orders intended to curb the spread of COVID-19. To many, the limitations on normal activities, travel and socializing felt confining.
But for 22-year-old Alexis Martin, April 2020 meant a taste of freedom after more than six years in prison—and before that, sex trafficking.33
In an article for The Washington Post, Jessica Contrera shares how Alexis ended up in prison. By age 15, Alexis had experienced so many of the most horrific things that can happen to a girl—sexual abuse, rape, a miscarriage and sex trafficking. Her trafficker, Angelo Kerney, didn’t allow her to attend school and beat her when she threatened to run away. In Alexis’ desperation to escape, she became involved in a robbery plot that ended in the murder of Kerney. The teenage girl was then tried as an adult and sentenced to decades in prison.34
Then, in April 2020, the Ohio governor commuted Alexis’ sentence, allowing her to go free with parole. Even with this taste of freedom, she continues to face challenges, such as finding a job, due to the trauma she faced as a teenager and the black mark of a prison sentence.35
Alexis’ story is one of many showing how the abuse and exploitation of girls can have devastating consequences. Her story happened in America, a country where girls typically have many freedoms and opportunities that girls in developing nations do not. And Alexis’ story happened before a pandemic that caused far-reaching social and economic impacts for the entire world.
In some places, such as the United States, the availability of COVID-19 vaccines and the easing of many restrictions have made the virus seem more distant. Yet lurking in its shadow is a crisis threatening the safety and health of girls. As social isolation and poverty have increased, girls have potentially become the most under-recognized victim group of the pandemic.
Globally, the pandemic has threatened girls’ education, increased their risk for the kind of abuse and trafficking that devastated Alexis’ teenage years, and made them more vulnerable to child marriage and teen pregnancy. While statistics from 2021 regarding girls’ well-being remain to be counted, in spring 2020 non-profit organizations were already predicting that the pandemic’s economic strain on families and the shutting down of schools would negatively impact the health, education, safety and general well-being of girls if communities didn’t prioritize giving girls needed attention, care and education.
COVID-19: A Long-lasting Threat to Education
learners globally—91% of the total—were out of school in an early April 2020 effort to halt the spread of COVID-19.
As COVID-19 rapidly spread across the globe in the spring of 2020, governments around the world decided to keep people at home in hopes of slowing the pandemic. Large numbers of people could not work at all, while others lost income as business slowed or stopped due to the drop in customers. This especially hurt low-income workers who could not simply work from home, such as migrant laborers, daily wage laborers and others who lost their livelihood during the lockdowns. Gita Gopinath, an economist and director at the International Monetary Fund, suggests that the pandemic caused the greatest recession since the Great Depression.36
Now, with the pandemic further stretching struggling families’ resources, girls likely have faced, and will continue to face, lower chances of receiving needed nutrition and attending school.
As the pandemic curtails girls’ education by forcing them out of the classroom - a problem from which many may never recover - it is also puts them at risk for abuse and exploitation.
Being in a classroom protects girls from sexual predators, unhealthy relationships and abusive parents or relatives. But due to lockdowns, many girls no longer have the classroom as a safe space.
According to the global non-profit Save the Children, “In early April 2020, in an effort to halt the spread of COVID-19, an estimated 1.6 billion learners globally—91% of the total—were out of school. For the first time in human history, an entire generation of children globally have had their education disrupted.”37
Now, more than a year later, many children have spent more than a year out of the classroom—and may never return.38
As girls stay out of school, they risk devastating consequences to their health, well-being and future opportunities. Studies from the Ebola crisis have suggested that once girls were taken out of school due to Ebola, many didn’t return, even long after schools reopened.39
School closures pose the greatest challenge for girls in developing nations, where families may be struggling financially and communities may not have access to the technology needed for distance learning. Sometimes girls bear a greater burden in supporting the family during challenging times. They may be given extra household responsibilities, including caring for younger siblings or sick family members; this can decrease their opportunities to do schoolwork at home—and their chances of returning to school when the pandemic subsides.40
As schools in some places reopen, the pandemic’s effects are starting to be seen. In Kenya, for example, only 84 percent of teen girls returned to school, while 92 percent of teen boys came back.41 This could be just the tip of the iceberg. Malala Fund, an NGO supporting girls’ education, estimates 20 million girls in developing countries will not return to the classroom.42
As the pandemic is curtailing girls’ education, it is also putting them at risk for abuse, exploitation and violence. Being in the classroom can help protect girls from sexual predators, unhealthy relationships and even abusive parents or relatives. But due to lockdowns, many girls no longer have the classroom as a safe space.43
Girls Pushed into Adult Responsibilities
more girls could be at risk of child marriage, and in 2020 alone teen pregnancies may have risen by up to 1 million.
Mayawati, a teenager in Nepal, wanted to continue school and study agriculture. “But her family’s struggles during the pandemic made her feel guilty about being a burden to her parents,” wrote Bhadra Sharma and Jeffrey Gettleman for The New York Times.44 “She dropped out of school, then married a man who worked as a menial laborer. Her dreams … have quietly slipped away.”
Mayawati’s story reflects that of others in Nepal and around the world.45 Because of the pandemic, parents struggling to feed their children may feel the need to marry off their daughters to reduce the number of mouths they must feed.46 In addition, as girls spend time out of the classroom, they may spend more time with men and more unsupervised time with boys, which increases their chances for teen pregnancy and child marriage.47 48
Save the Children predicts a “dramatic surge in child marriage and adolescent pregnancy”: Within a five-year span, 2.5 million more girls could be at risk of child marriage, and in 2020 alone teen pregnancies may have risen by up to 1 million.49
This means that those girls may lose the chance to ever complete their education, which will limit their chances for jobs in the future. In addition, girls who marry young are more vulnerable to sexual abuse and violence.50 Child marriage and teen pregnancy also threaten girls’ physical health. Girls who give birth at very young ages can face a host of complications, including miscarriage, obstetric fistula—and death.51 52
“Complications of pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death in young women aged 15–19,” says Dr. Flavia Bustreo, a leader in the World Health Organization’s Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health. “Young girls who marry later and delay pregnancy beyond their adolescence have more chances to stay healthier, to better their education and build a better life for themselves and their families.”53
A Pandemic of Abuse and Exploitation
As girls face an increased risk of child marriage, they are also becoming more vulnerable to violence and trafficking.
In May 2020, World Vision, a Christian community development organization, suggested up to 85 million children worldwide would be exposed to physical, sexual or emotional violence for three months over the COVID-19 quarantine.54 Imagine how many more children have now been impacted—lockdowns in many nations extended to well over a year! And while all children can face violence, girls and young women may also face abuse from a husband or boyfriend, rape, sexual assault or sexual harassment.
UNICEF reports that approximately 120 million girls and young women under age 20 have been raped or forced to perform sexual acts.55 According to the World Health Organization, around 1 in 3 women endure physical or sexual violence from a romantic partner or sexual violence from some person during their lifetime.56
“It’s deeply disturbing that this pervasive violence by men against women not only persists unchanged, but is at its worst for young women aged 15-24 who may also be young mothers,” commented Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women. “And that was the situation before the pandemic stay-at-home orders. We know that the multiple impacts of COVID-19 have triggered a ‘shadow pandemic’ of increased reported violence of all kinds against women and girls.”57
The pandemic has also increased girls’ risk for human trafficking. In April 2020, the anti-trafficking organization Polaris Project observed a 40-percent spike in the number of crisis calls to the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline requiring intervention within 24 hours.58
This increase in human trafficking didn’t just occur in the United States, though, and it may have the worst impact on developing nations, some of which have been hardest-hit by the virus. The U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime has predicted trafficking rates will increase, especially in places where unemployment rates have rapidly increased, and people from poor communities will likely be trafficked to places recovering more quickly.59
This may continue even years from now, due to the pandemic’s ongoing financial and social impacts. Times of economic need make children especially vulnerable to trafficking, and if a girl comes from a dysfunctional family situation or a home where one parent is absent, that also increases her risk for trafficking.60 Furthermore, in places where children can easily access technology, they are spending more time online, which places girls in the sights of predators who might target them for sexual exploitation or abuse.61 As the pandemic continues to strain both the economy and family relationships, girls will be increasingly at risk for trafficking. According to 2018 findings, girls comprised about 20 percent of total trafficking victims and 25 percent of victims trafficked for sexual exploitation,62 but those percentages may increase due to changes in society, such as children’s increased time online, emotional stressors on parents (which may distract their attention from their children) and increased financial burdens on families (which may cause parents, especially in developing countries, to send their daughters to work, thus making them more available to traffickers).
Turning the Tide of the Pandemic's Impact on Girls
As reports and predictions increasingly forecast a grim future for girls, it’s clear the COVID-19 pandemic has become a global crisis for girls in a unique way.
Save the Children’s 2020 Global Girlhood Report sums it up: “The worst health impacts for girls might not result from infection with the virus. Instead, the greatest impacts on girls of the COVID-19 crisis are likely to be losing access to other health services, increasing poverty, food insecurity, losing access to education and being exposed to violence.”63
Even one year of financial and social upheaval can sow years of consequences. Women like Alexis can attest to the toll taken by years of physical, emotional and sexual abuse or trauma. What will happen to a generation of girls whose lives have been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic? How many years will it take to overcome the consequences of limited or halted education and increased chances for abuse or exploitation?
Now is the time to stand with non-profit organizations and governing authorities to ensure girls don’t fall through the cracks. Fostering safe communities for girls and promoting their nutrition, health and education can help protect and nurture girls to have a strong future despite the setbacks of a long pandemic.
Child sponsorship programs, including GFA World’s, World Vision’s and Compassion International’s, play a key role in creating safe, healthy communities and ensuring girls receive adequate care, even when lockdowns have prevented students from gathering for their usual tutoring programs.
Pervasive violence by men against women is at its worst for young women aged 15-24 who may also be young mothers. And that was the situation before the pandemic stay-at-home orders. Since then, multiple impacts of COVID-19 have triggered a ‘shadow pandemic’ of increased reported violence of all kinds against women and girls.
Throughout the pandemic, GFA World’s child sponsorship program has worked to meet the basic needs of children in the program, along with their families and communities. GFA workers provided COVID-19 relief to 2 million people during the pandemic in 2020 alone, and child sponsorship centers became community kitchens.
At one food distribution event during the pandemic, GFA workers met Ajia, a 13-year-old girl who was caring for two younger brothers. They have parents, but their parents were living in a different country to find work and were sending money home to their children—until they lost work due to the pandemic. This left the children without money for their basic living expenses. The GFA workers were able to give Ajia and her siblings needed supplies and groceries.
“Thank you for your love and care toward us,” Ajia said. “You are the one who knew about our situation and fulfilled our needs.”
By providing something as basic as food, GFA workers are helping girls stay healthy—and keeping girls from begging on the streets, which may lead to exploitation. Hopefully, these free meals and groceries will not only provide for girls’ basic nutrition but also ease families’ financial burdens and encourage hard-pressed parents, making the home environment safer and more positive.
To mitigate the effects of the pandemic on girls’ well-being, child sponsorship programs and other non-profits must be able to continue their community development work to meet communities’ basic health and safety needs. GFA World and other organizations provide practical care to communities that benefits girls, such as clean water and sanitation facilities. Clean water is vital for everyone at all times, but it is even more important for girls so they can practice good menstrual hygiene, which is often compromised during times of emergency.64 Constructing toilets not only improves the health of entire communities, but it also protects girls. Girls who must walk to a distant field to go to the bathroom risk sexual harassment or assault, especially because many go at nighttime for privacy reasons.
Fostering Safety and Education
While meeting the basic needs of girls, non-profits and communities and families must also work to value and protect girls and their education. Malala Fund is partnering with organizations and governments in several developing nations to promote digital learning, secure education funding for girls and ensure girls’ mental and physical well-being during school closures.65
“Our goal should not be a return to the way things were but instead a renewed commitment to the way the world should be, a place where every girl can learn and lead.”66
GFA workers have encouraged communities to promote girls’ education, even during the pandemic. Last October, GFA workers in one community held a small International Day of the Girl celebration at the local church, where regional pastors and a Women’s Fellowship leader shared about the importance of valuing girls.
“Children are a gift from God; they are His reward,” explained the Women’s Fellowship leader, referencing Psalm 127.
One of the pastors then prayed for each girl present while the other attendees lifted their hands toward the girls in a sign of agreement with his prayer of blessing. At the end of the program, the girls each received a pen and a chocolate bar.
These may seem like small gifts, but even small ways of showing respect for girls can impact a community.
“I acknowledged the fact that a girl child is a great blessing for the family, church and in our society, who must not be considered as a burden, rather an instrument for source of blessings,” said one woman present.
“A girl child must not be shown any partiality from her parents nor put down without knowing her potential. … She must be educated well and needs to be motivated,” shared a 15-year-old girl who attended.
As churches, non-profits and governments work together to help girls reach their potential, girls will most likely have safer communities. Parents who value their daughters will probably spend more time with them, engage them in conversation more often, and help them to develop healthy relationships. In countries where technology is available, this means parents will safeguard their daughters’ online experience.
As families and communities choose to embrace and educate their daughters, girls will face a lower risk of trafficking, violence and abuse.
While creating safe environments for girls is key, organizations and governments must also work together to end child marriage and trafficking and provide justice and care to girls who have already been victimized.
In 134 countries, child marriage (marriage where at least one partner is under age 18) can happen if a parent, judge or authority consents.67 In the United States, several states allow for child marriage if a parent consents. North Carolina and Alaska allow a girl to be married at 14 if she is pregnant.68 In 2002, North Carolina received a marriage application from a 57-year-old wanting to marry a 17-year-old.69 Because of exceptions in the law, a teenage girl may be pressured or even forced into marriage by her parents or others, so advocates suggest that governments should keep the marriage age at 18—with no exceptions.70
Calling on governments to remove exceptions to the legal marriage age can protect girls from experiencing statutory rape and/or being forced to marry someone who may have abused them. It can help these girls grow up with a better chance of finishing school and choosing a partner when they are old enough to know what is right for them.
As churches, non-profits and governments work together to help girls reach their fullest potential, girls will most likely have safer communities. And as families within communities choose to embrace and educate their daughters, girls will face a lower risk of trafficking, violence and abuse.
The Dominican Republic reached a milestone this year in the fight against child marriage: On January 6, the nation’s president approved a bill removing any grounds for child marriage.71 Now that marriage is prohibited for anyone under age 18 in the Dominican Republic, girls there will be less vulnerable to human trafficking and abuse.
Meanwhile, despite the pandemic, organizations such as International Justice Mission, Freedom Firm and Exodus Cry have continued their work to rescue girls (and other victims) from trafficking, bring justice to traffickers and provide care to survivors.
One victory in the fight against trafficking occurred in the success of the Traffickinghub campaign, which has been shining a light on the prevalence of the abuse of women and children found on the website Pornhub.72 The Traffickinghub campaign, along with a New York Times editorial by Nicholas Kristof, drew attention to this and eventually encouraged government leaders and businesses to investigate allegations that Pornhub was profiting from child pornography and rape.73 Eventually, Visa, Mastercard and Discover refused to process transactions on the site, and Pornhub had to remove nearly 80 percent of its videos. Meanwhile, senators have introduced two bills in Congress to help protect women and girls from pornography being posted online without their consent; one bill makes it easy for victims to sue platforms like Pornhub, and another requires such platforms to provide proof of age and consent for the individuals appearing in videos.74
A New Beginning
Serena, one of the women interviewed by Kristof, was 14 when a classmate asked her to send him a naked video of herself. She did, and he posted it on Pornhub without her consent. As classmates mocked her for it, she fell down a spiral of shame, suicide attempts and drug addiction.75
“A whole life can be changed because of one little mistake,” she told Kristof.76
Making mistakes is a normal part of a child’s development. But for girls, the cost of a “mistake” is often too high. Trusting someone who turns out to be untrustworthy or failing to stay safe online could entrap a girl in years of abuse and exploitation. For some girls, lacking a strong family or support system simply endangers them, apart from any decisions they have made. Girls’ risks are increasing, whether they are making “mistakes” or not.
For Alexis Martin, one mistake was trusting a man who ended up trafficking her.77 Now, although life on parole has its hardships, she is free from trafficking and free from prison. She has been living with a mentor and working to save money, buy a car and attend college. She now goes by Kee, a shortened version of her middle name, to remind herself that she is a new person.78
For girls, a single mistake—or a single experience of abuse—can yield years of pain or injustice. COVID-19 has been making their lives more difficult and more dangerous. Months of poverty, neglect and violence have the potential to derail girls’ futures. Like Alexis, girls who have endured trauma can gain a fresh start, but they will need support, advocacy and help to break the grip of destructive forces on their lives. That’s why it’s more vital than ever to provide girls with safe, nurturing environments and to bring justice and aid to those who’ve been abused.
There is much work to be done, but organizations, communities and governments can work together to equip girls with education; protect them from trafficking, child marriage and violence; and help girls who have been exploited find restoration. The COVID-19 pandemic will have years of consequences, but with God’s help, we can prevent it from destroying girls’ lives. We can witness a new beginning.
Give to Help Girls at Risk
If you want to support girls in South Asia and Africa, consider a one-time donation to help young victims who have been delivered from desperate situations in their lives, but are still struggling everyday. Your gift will provide for their pressing needs, while we locate permanent sponsors to cover their monthly needs to remain in school.
How Your Donations Are Applied
We value your donation and are committed to good stewardship of the funds entrusted to us by our friends and donors. All gift options represent GFA’s actual ministry efforts to meet the diverse needs of individuals and communities. Regardless of particular designations, monies are raised for ministry purposes, and GFA retains discretion to use donated funds in any manner that serves GFA’s charitable objectives.
This ends the update to our original Special Report,
which is featured in its entirety below.
Nearly 173 years ago, on October 16, 1847, a book authored by “Currer Bell” rolled off the presses and quickly provoked a combination of praise, revulsion and gossip.
“It is a very remarkable book,” wrote a reviewer named Elizabeth Rigby. “We have no other remembrance of one combining such genuine power with such horrid taste.”1
Many literary critics today still consider Bell’s novel, Jane Eyre, remarkable, but perhaps not for the same reasons Rigby did. For one thing, Jane Eyre opens with a girl at the center of its action. And this girl is a dynamic and well-rounded protagonist with a depth, voice and independent spirit that were groundbreaking for the time.
As grown-up Jane narrates her story, readers journey with young Jane through girlhood. They feel what she feels as she experiences the sting of abuse, the devastation of loss, the joy of friendship and the empowerment of education. They watch how these experiences shape Jane into a young woman who faces messy adult situations with resolve and integrity.
Jane Eyre stands as one of the earliest and most prominent examples of a coming-of-age story with a female protagonist, and it is still considered by some to be one of the greatest novels ever written.2 Much of the strength of this story derives from the strength of its female title character, a character created by an author who had experienced girlhood herself. (“Currer Bell” was in fact a woman named Charlotte Brontё.) This novel preceded countless other popular woman-authored novels and series describing a girl’s journey to womanhood: Little Women; Anne of Green Gables; Little House on the Prairie; To Kill a Mockingbird and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, to name a few. These stories have captivated audiences spanning generations and nationalities.
In many developing parts of the world, girls struggle to survive.
They face abuse, neglect, discrimination, trafficking and child marriage, even in the most economically stable and educated nations.
Perhaps these stories still speak to audiences today in part because they remind readers of what it means to be a girl. A girl can be imaginative and creative. A girl can overcome loss, abuse, neglect or public humiliation. A girl can learn to forgive. A girl can develop skills and abilities. A girl can think and analyze. A girl has the potential to grow into a strong woman.
A girl is a human being created in the image of God, and He is writing a nonfiction story in each girl’s life. Too often, however, girls’ dignity is robbed by other humans who do not recognize their value as human beings and God’s image-bearers. Too often, girls are treated as burdens, as sexual objects or as machines purposed solely for physical labor and child-bearing. Yet as girls learn of their value in the eyes of their Creator—and as they gain access to education, justice and financial stability—they are once again able to live as the protagonists in their own stories.
In developed areas, most girls enjoy relative stability. They go to school, eat nutritious food, enjoy hobbies, play sports and hang out with friends. But in many developing parts of the world, girls struggle to survive. Though girls in different regions may face different challenges, girls throughout the world face abuse, neglect, discrimination, trafficking and child marriage, even in the most economically stable and educated nations.
A Fight for Existence
The story of Ruth, a GFA missionary, illustrates the first and biggest threat to girls’ lives. Throughout her childhood, Ruth was treated cruelly by her parents.3 They made her work long hours in their fields, they didn’t feed her enough and they rarely provided her with new clothes. One day Ruth finally got the courage to ask her parents why they mistreated her.
“You should have been a boy!” shouted her father.
Ruth had three older sisters, and her parents desperately wanted a son. They even sold a field to give an offering to a priest of their traditional religion so he would intercede for them to have a son. When Ruth, a fourth girl, was born instead, her father was furious—and he unleashed that resentment on Ruth throughout her growing-up years.
Society’s abasement of girls yields tragic consequences. For Ruth, it led to a childhood marked by abuse. For thousands of other girls, it robs them of experiencing life at all: Girls face their first threat in the womb.
Some societies view girls as a liability and a financial burden, so many families decide they don’t want a daughter. This has made sex-selective abortion a devastating problem around the world.
In India, an effort to prevent sex-selective abortions has led to a ban on using ultrasound to learn a baby’s gender, but some people find illegal ways to get an ultrasound: The number of sex-selective abortions in India appeared to be growing around the start of the 21st century.4 There may be numerous reasons why parents illegally abort their daughters, especially because many of the abortions happened among educated families. Perhaps some people still fear having too many girls because they expect daughters will earn less for the family and will require a dowry payment upon marriage. Perhaps others simply value boys more.
Girls face their first threat in the womb.
Since some societies view girls as a liability and a financial burden, many families decide they don’t want a daughter. This has made sex-selective abortion a devastating problem around the world.
China, the largest nation on earth in terms of population, is still recovering from decades of its “one-child policy.” High abortion rates of girls caused a skewed sex ratio, leaving too many men and too few women.
“Over 30 years, China was robbed of millions of girls as families used gender-based abortions and other methods to ensure their only child was a boy,” explains Hannah Beech in an article for The New York Times. “These boys are now men, called bare branches because a shortage of wives could mean death to their family trees. At the height of the gender imbalance in 2004, 121 boys were born in China for every 100 girls, according to Chinese population figures.”5
Not only has this skewed sex ratio robbed millions of girls of life itself, but it has also threatened the girls who aren’t aborted in the womb, putting them at grave risk for abuse such as forced marriage and human trafficking.
Deprived of Opportunity
When a girl survives to childhood, she faces another great hurdle: gaining an education. An education greatly changes what choices she may have in the future. Without one, a girl may never learn to read or write. She may never be able to understand street signs, shop signs or business contracts. She may never get to choose her own career or spouse. She may never be able to help her children get an education themselves.
Many families don’t send their daughters to school for financial reasons. They can’t afford the expenses of clothing and supplies, even when they do have access to free public education. Sometimes they struggle just to put food on the table, and they deem it necessary to send some children to work to support the family. When families can’t afford to educate all their children, they may expect their daughters to sacrifice their education and help care for the home.
According to a 2018 report from Malala Fund and the World Bank, the repercussions of not educating girls are serious.6 When girls miss out on a quality education, they miss the opportunity to pursue careers that could financially benefit them and their families in the future. They also risk ending up in unstable marriages where they are abused or disrespected, and they risk raising daughters who remain in the same vicious cycle.
When a girl survives to childhood,
she faces another great hurdle: gaining an education.
Without one, a girl may never learn to read or write.
“Depriving girls of education, especially secondary school education, has dramatic costs for girls themselves, their families, communities and societies,” says the report. “These include greater rates of poverty, higher rates of child marriage, increased fertility rates, and reduced engagement in personal, familial and community decision making.”7
The report found that girls who receive only a primary education face similar challenges to women who receive no education at all. They are just as likely to marry and have children before age 18, and upon entering the work force, they earn only 15 percent more.8 When girls miss out on an education, especially due to child marriage, human trafficking or forced labor, they miss opportunities for independence and financial stability, and they risk passing on the same neglect and exploitation to subsequent generations of girls.
Childhood Cut Short
child brides worldwide, including girls under age 18 who are already married, and adult women who married in childhood.
Robbing girls of education has contributed to another global problem for girls: child marriage. In 2018, UNICEF reported there were 650 million child brides worldwide, including girls under age 18 who were already married and adult women who married in childhood.9
In some communities, child marriage remains prevalent due to poverty and deep-rooted attitudes toward girls and women. When people fail to educate their girls, they fail to see their daughters’ potential to earn income, to build careers or to dream of accomplishments beyond serving a husband and bearing children. This narrow view often causes families to perceive their daughters as financial liabilities who must be married off so a husband can provide for them.
Child marriage subjects girls to undue physical and mental stress. It gravely endangers their health, as it often pushes girls to bear children while in their teenage years. Many child brides already suffer from malnourishment, and the added strain of childbirth threatens their lives—and the lives of the babies they bear. Malnourished or unhealthy mothers often rear malnourished or unhealthy babies. Even worse, their babies may not even survive to term.
Ridhima learned this by experience.10
Ridhima was married off at the age of 12 and became pregnant only a few months later. Ridhima’s in-laws told her a pregnant lady should work to be healthy and forced her to perform difficult chores around the house, including heavy lifting. Whenever Ridhima rested because she didn’t feel well, they accused her of being dramatic to get out of work.
On top of the verbal abuse from her mother-in-law, Ridhima faced physical abuse from her alcoholic husband.
During Ridhima’s seventh month of pregnancy, her doctor said she needed to rest because of a complication. But Ridhima’s mother-in-law dismissed the doctor’s advice, and the continued strain on Ridhima’s health had tragic consequences: When the birth approached, the doctor had to perform a C-section to deliver the baby, but tragically, the child was dead.
Instead of comforting her, Ridhima’s in-laws blamed the young teenager for the baby’s death.
Child marriage not only robs girls of their childhood and endangers their health but also potentially limits and destabilizes their future. These girls typically don’t get to finish their education, so they lose opportunities to contribute to society and educate their own children. Then, if their husbands mistreat them, abandon them or pass away, these women may have very few ways to provide for themselves and their children, which may leave them susceptible to exploitation.
Corinne Redfern, a writer for The Telegraph, describes a disturbing trend in Bangladesh.
“Out of 375 sex workers surveyed on behalf of Girls Not Brides across four … brothels in Bangladesh last year, 47 percent were former child brides, trafficked into prostitution against their will,” she wrote.11
Redfern interviewed several teenaged girls who had been forced into marriage when they were as young as 11 or 12. When these girls tried to escape physical and sexual abuse, they were deceived and sold to brothels. These teenagers now face more sexual and physical abuse, and see no alternative life for themselves.
“One time, when I was new, the police came by and asked me how old I was—they said they’d had a report that I was too young to be working, and that they could help me leave,” a 14-year-old girl told Redfern. “But I don’t have anywhere to go. So I said I was 18. Now when times are bad, I think to myself, ‘This is all your own fault.’”12
The demand for child brides increases where gender-biased abortion leaves communities with a low ratio of men to women. Girls become a commodity to be secured. This problem is most severe in China, where bride trafficking has ensnared women and teenage girls from neighboring countries, such as Pakistan and North Korea. Traffickers lure women and girls with the promise of jobs, but victims find themselves forced to cohabit with Chinese men who don’t speak their language. Often these girls and women are kept locked in rooms and raped, as their new husband and his family expect them to bear children.13
In her article for The New York Times, Hannah Beech shares the stories of Nyo and Phyu, two teenagers who were trafficked to China at age 16.14 A neighbor promised to find them waitressing jobs, but after 10 days of traveling, the girls realized that was not their fate. They tried to run away twice, but they were caught and locked in a room.
“The girls were split up, each paired with a supposed husband, although no marriage paperwork was ever filled out, to their knowledge,” writes Beech.
After going home with their new “husbands,” both girls were locked in rooms. Nyo was often beaten and raped by her “husband.” Phyu’s “husband” repeatedly injected drugs into her arm before forcing her to have sex. Eventually, Phyu and Nyo both gained access to the internet. This allowed police to track the girls down, prosecute the traffickers and “husbands,” and send the girls back to their home country.
But the traumatic experience left both girls with painful life circumstances.
Nyo ended up giving birth to a daughter by her Chinese “husband.” Phyu suffered physical and psychological damage from the abuse she experienced.
“Before this happened, Phyu was so happy and active,” Phyu’s mother told Beech. “But they gave her something to make her forget and trigger her sexuality. They beat her. She doesn’t know she is ruined.”15
Bride trafficking makes up only a small percentage of the trafficking of girls, a trade that has grown rapidly in recent decades.
The United Nations reports:
of trafficked girls are used for sexual exploitation.
of trafficked girls are used for forced labor.
are used for other purposes (such as forced marriage, exploitative begging or coerced criminal activities).
Girls make up a rising percentage of the total detected number of trafficking victims:
of total victims in 2004 are comprised of girls.
of total victims in 2016 are comprised of girls.16
When many think of trafficking, they imagine a woman or teenage girl being forced to work in a brothel. While this does make up a large percentage of cases, the trafficking of girls can take a variety of forms. For some, like Ashmita, it means working as a domestic servant.17
After Ashmita’s father died, she and her mother moved into someone’s home to earn a living doing housework. Later, Ashmita’s mother sent her to work in another family’s home. Ashmita, who wasn’t yet 10 years old, was forced to wash dishes and clothes, mop floors and massage the legs of her employer. When Ashmita grew physically tired from the labor the house owners demanded, she was beaten and slapped. One time, the woman of the house put chili powder in Ashmita’s eyes.
For other girls, human trafficking means forced labor in the internet pornography industry, massage parlors that function as fronts for sexual exploitation, or “beggar mafia” networks. Whatever the form of trafficking, it leaves a deep, long-lasting mark on a girl’s psychology.
“Trafficking victims often find it difficult to overcome the traumatic reality of their exploitation and share details with law enforcement authorities that could aid in prosecuting their traffickers,” states the U.S. Department of State.18
Traumatized and Exploited
Girls in areas of political instability, conflict or oppression become especially vulnerable to forced marriage and human trafficking.
“Trafficking in persons for sexual exploitation occurs within all conflict areas considered, including sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East, South-East Asia and others,” reports the UN. “In some refugee camps in the Middle East, for example, it has been documented that girls and young women have been ‘married off’ without their consent and subjected to sexual exploitation in neighbouring countries. Abduction of women and girls for sexual slavery has been reported in many conflicts in Central and West Africa, as well as in the conflicts in the Middle East. It has also been reported that women and girls are trafficked for forced marriage in the same areas.”19
Reports of such conflict-related trafficking occasionally make international news. The world waited for the return of more than 200 girls kidnapped in 2014 by Boko Haram in Chibok, Nigeria. News outlets recounted how the Islamic State group forced Yazidi and Christian girls into sexual slavery. In some regions, however, political instability has made the trafficking of girls an everyday reality often overlooked by the rest of the world.
North Korean girls attempting to flee government oppression may face the greatest risk for exploitation. In China, the only country they can directly cross into, they must try to be invisible. If they are caught, China’s government will send them back to North Korea, where they will likely face prison time for illegally exiting their homeland (which may involve starvation, sexual abuse or physical torture). As a result, North Korean women and girls easily become prey for traffickers.
Girls in areas of political instability, conflict or oppression become especially vulnerable to forced marriage and human trafficking.
According to a report from the Korea Future Initiative, the vast majority of North Korean trafficking victims are girls or women aged between 12 and 29, and many became ensnared in sexual slavery less than a year after fleeing North Korea.20
Most of these girls and women end up in prostitution in brothels near the China/North Korea border, while others become entrapped in the growing cybersex trade.
“Girls aged as young as 9 are forced to perform graphic sex acts and are sexually assaulted in front of webcams which are live-streamed to a paying global audience,” explains the Korea Future Initiative.21
In every story, there is conflict that disrupts the protagonist’s life. And in the stories of many girls’ lives, antagonists like exploitation, abuse trafficking, forced marriage or discrimination have brought so much conflict and destruction they have nearly destroyed hope. Without intervention, many girls will never have the chance for an education or a career. They may suffer from lasting health problems due to teenage pregnancy, forced prostitution, rape or physical abuse. They may live the rest of their lives believing they shouldn’t expect anything better.
There is, however, a God who created each girl and each woman. He hears the cry of the powerless and the needy and comes to their aid, and He gives them strength to overcome trauma and oppression. There are also many people working to combat trafficking, promote education and teach the value of girls. Many of these advocates were themselves once girls whose stories were defined by tragedy and abuse. Yet these women have risen above those obstacles, and they are helping other girls and women find similar freedom.
Ruth’s story shifted from tragedy to hope after she met some Christian women serving in her community. They befriended the teenager, encouraged her and invited her to church. There, Ruth heard a GFA pastor share about the love of Christ—a love that was overwhelming to a girl whose own parents didn’t value her. Ruth decided to follow this God who actually loved her.
Later she moved to another city to receive training from the church about how to help other hurting people just like herself. Before she left, she went to seek her father’s blessing, which in her culture is requested by bending down and touching an elder’s feet. Instead of blessing her, her father kicked her in the face.
During her time in Bible college, Ruth grew closer to Christ. Around the time she graduated, her pastor from her village told her she needed to come back home. Ruth’s father had changed, he said.
When Ruth got off the bus in her village, her father was waiting for her, and something happened that had never occurred before: He hugged her.
What had caused such a dramatic change in his attitude?
He had become a follower of Jesus, like his daughter. After God transformed his life, Ruth’s father began to value and support Ruth, knowing she was a gift from the Lord and not a burden.
Lasting global change in the treatment of girls starts when people recognize the value of each girl as a human being created by God. Those who recognize this will protect girls’ lives and challenge attitudes demeaning girls as less valuable than boys.
Lasting global change in the treatment of girls starts when people recognize the value of each girl as a human being created by God. Those who recognize this will protect girls’ lives and challenge attitudes demeaning girls.
In South Asia, where rates of gender-biased abortion are still high—despite it being illegal—GFA workers have the opportunity to show through their example and counsel that girls have dignity and value as image-bearers of God. These men and women are able to bring change not only to girls’ lives but also to entire families and communities. As the mindsets of parents and community members change, girls live in a safer, more supportive environment.
One day, GFA pastor Kanish heard some concerning news from Rajika, a woman who attended his church along with her four daughters.22 Rajika’s husband, Sushil, had already been addicted to drugs. Then, after Rajika gave birth to their fourth daughter, neighbors began to mock Sushil for having no sons and only daughters. The disappointment and humiliation pushed Sushil further into a pit of depression and substance abuse. He began abusing his wife and children.
Thankfully, Pastor Kanish was equipped to talk to Sushil: The pastor himself had three daughters and no sons. Unlike Sushil, Pastor Kanish cherished his daughters. When he visited Rajika and Sushil’s home, he challenged Sushil’s attitude toward his daughters. He explained to Sushil that his daughters were blessings from God, not burdens.
Through the pastor’s encouragement, Sushil decided to depend on Jesus instead of alcohol and drugs. He began to pray regularly, and he welcomed others to his home for prayer meetings. As Sushil’s mindset and lifestyle were transformed, he overcame his addictions and started loving his wife and children instead of abusing them. He thanked God for restoring his life.
As God transforms the attitudes of people like Ruth’s father and Sushil, a broad impact sweeps through entire families and communities. When just one person chooses to value and support his or her daughter, this changes not only her life but also the lives she will impact one day. Moreover, this support shows others an example of a healthy family dynamic.
Opening Doors of Opportunity
A recognition of girls’ inherent value will advance education for girls. Education helps girls learn basic skills like reading and writing, which are necessary to complete everyday tasks and conduct business in society. Education helps girls develop talents and interests. Education helps girls pursue the careers or paths that are right for them instead of being completely dependent on a husband. Ultimately, education helps girls unlock the freedom and knowledge to realize their potential.
At only 15 years old, Malala Yousafzai was nearly killed because she fought for education for girls in her region of Pakistan, where the Taliban had forbidden them from attending school.23 The teenager publicly spoke out about a girl’s right to attend school. Then, one day, a masked gunman boarded her school bus and shot her in the head.
“I woke up 10 days later in a hospital in Birmingham, England,” Malala remembers. “The doctors and nurses told me about the attack—and that people around the world were praying for my recovery.”24
After her remarkable recovery, Malala became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. Now 23, she continues to advocate for girls worldwide: She and her father founded the Malala Fund to advance the mission of 12 years of free, safe, quality education for girls.
“Girls who complete secondary school become healthier, more prosperous adults,” writes the Malala Fund. “Girls who receive a secondary education are more able and likely to contribute fully in their families, communities and societies, as earners, informed mothers, and agents of change.”25
Many impoverished families fail to educate their daughters because they are struggling just to put food on the table; they cannot afford school supplies or uniforms. However, GFA’s Child Sponsorship Program and other child sponsorship programs help make education a reality for girls in poverty. These programs often provide for school expenses, uniforms, food and tuition: the tools needed for a child to thrive academically and complete her education.
As child sponsorship programs remove a financial burden from the family, they make it more likely for parents to keep their other children in school, even if only one child can join the sponsorship program. This changes the situation for families that would be tempted to keep their daughters at home, send them to work as child laborers or marry them off at a young age.
Through child sponsorship programs, girls gain the chance to excel scholastically, develop artistic and athletic talents, eat nutritious meals and build positive relationships in a supportive, nurturing atmosphere. The gift of education also changes girls’ outlook for the future.
Girls who once would have only looked forward to marrying young or doing menial labor jobs now dream of being teachers, police officers, nurses or engineers. They have a much greater chance of achieving higher education.
Since the inception of GFA’s Child Sponsorship Program in 2004, thousands have graduated, and many have gone on to pursue higher education or the career of their dreams.
Salena, a graduate from the Child Sponsorship Program, came from a poor background and watched her two older brothers labor in a hazardous factory. Until a Child Sponsorship Program center opened in her community, she didn’t have much to look forward to, as her parents struggled just to put food on the table for their six kids. But GFA's Child Sponsorship Program allowed Salena to excel in and complete her education.
“If I had not joined the Child Sponsorship Program, I would have been looking after cows of a landlord, or I would have gotten married and gone to my in-laws’ home, because my parents had no money to send me to school,” Salena says.
“I clearly remember many nights we went to bed without food. … But then the Child Sponsorship Program became … an agent of change and a stream of blessing in my life. Joy and peace came into my life as well as in my home. I was given all my needs from the Child Sponsorship Program like other children in the [program]. I discovered my hidden talents, abilities and life’s purpose.”26
Resisting Child Marriage
Education can help girls avoid the trap of child marriage. At school, girls may learn about the dangers of child marriage, which can help them educate their own parents. Also, as girls acquire skills and knowledge at school, they and their families see the possibility of higher education and attractive career options.
At age 13, Krupa, a student in GFA's Child Sponsorship Program, came home one afternoon to find a crowd of people at her house. Bewildered, she asked her mother what was happening, but she only told Krupa to follow instructions. As Krupa’s neighbor started telling her to do things, Krupa realized she was being roped into a pre-wedding ceremony. Her parents were marrying her off.
Thankfully, Krupa had learned at the Child Sponsorship Program about the dangers of child marriage, and she had promised herself she would never marry before age 18. She wanted to attend university and become a teacher.
Desperate to stop the impending wedding, Krupa borrowed a cell phone and secretly called Child Sponsorship Program staff members.
“Within just half an hour, they arrived at our house like angels,” Krupa recalls. “They came directly to me without looking at anyone. All I could say to them was, ‘I am only 13. What would you do if I was your child?’ They needed nothing more to hear and understand the whole situation.”
The Child Sponsorship Program staff talked to Krupa’s parents and explained the laws against child marriage. Krupa’s father promised not to arrange her marriage before she turned 18.
“I thank the Child Sponsorship Program staff for saving me from becoming prey to the trap of child marriage,” Krupa says. “My friends and school teachers admire me for my courage, but I am just glad to be an inspiration for many young girls.”
With the help of the education she received and the support of the Child Sponsorship Program staff, Krupa kept her promise to herself. She finished her education, graduated from the Child Sponsorship Program and became a teacher, just as she’d hoped. She did eventually marry at age 20, when she was old enough and educated enough to make decisions about her own life.
Bringing Freedom, Justice and Restoration
Education makes girls less vulnerable to child labor, trafficking and child marriage, but justice demands the world not only protect girls from these evils but also rescue victims of trafficking and help them recover.
International Justice Mission (IJM) is one of the largest organizations working to free, defend and restore victims of trafficking. IJM and other organizations often work to track brothels where girls under age 18 are being forced to work. They work with law enforcement to remove girls from the brothels, see that perpetrators are appropriately prosecuted and help survivors to receive aftercare.
Earlier this year, IJM worked with police from two states in India to disrupt a cross-country sex trafficking ring.27Police in one region noticed girls were being trafficked to a city on the other side of India. IJM supported the police in both states as they located a brothel where many of these girls were being held. Manisha, who had been rescued from the same brothel when she was a minor in 2018, played an instrumental role, sharing information that helped direct police to the brothel. On February 22, the teamwork of IJM, the police and Manisha led to the arrest of four suspected traffickers and the rescue of two girls who had been imprisoned in the brothel.
Many other organizations like IJM work to rescue girls from trafficking, prosecute traffickers or provide aftercare to survivors. Other organizations combat trafficking by holding businesses accountable to prevent forced labor. Through initiatives such as the Freedom Seal label, consumers can help end trafficking by supporting businesses that have taken the necessary steps to block slavery from their supply chains.28
Rani Hong, the creator of the Freedom Seal initiative, fights against trafficking as someone who has survived it.29 Rani was trafficked when she was only 7 years old, forced to work 12 hours a day in a brick factory and kept in a cage at night. After she became physically unable to work, she was trafficked in an illegal adoption scheme.
Rani ended up in a loving home in the United States, grew up, got married, had children and eventually reconnected with her mother and siblings in India.
But Rani didn’t forget her childhood experience; she began working to prevent other children from facing the same fate. She spoke before the Washington State legislature to pass a law criminalizing human traffickers. She became a UN special adviser on the Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking, and she created the Freedom Seal label, mentioned above, to promote businesses free from child labor and trafficking.30
Ashmita, the girl forced to work as a domestic servant, also found freedom from child labor. After government authorities learned of her situation, they placed her in a home for girls run by GFA workers. There, Ashmita received care and encouragement from Sisters of Compassion and other GFA missionaries. She got to attend school. She played and made friends with the other girls at the home, who became like sisters to her.
“I like this place so much; I like all these didis [older sisters]. They work hard for me and for all of us,” Ashmita shared. “I like this place, and I don’t [want] to leave this place and go to any other place or orphanage because of the love and care that we get here.”31
Now, as Ashmita flourishes in a stable home where she is receiving education and care, she can dream about the future.
Writing New Chapters
In Jane Eyre, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables and most other popular coming-of-age stories about girls, the heroine gets a satisfying ending—the ending the characters and the readers both long for. Jane Eyre, Jo March and Anne Shirley find contentment accomplishing their dreams and living in safe homes with the people they love.
Real life doesn’t always bring neat, happy resolution, but it does bring the same element of hope found in those fictional stories—in an even more powerful way. In the true stories of girls such as Ruth, Ridhima and Ashmita, redemption is dawning over years of devastation and pain. As God brings restoration to their lives, they are helping many more girls to overcome the antagonists of abuse, discrimination and exploitation and to embrace their identities as daughters of the King of kings.
Ruth understands the power of this transformation as she continues to help more girls, women and communities by training younger women to minister Christ’s love to people in need.
“Let many sisters come up,” she says, “and then we will make a new history for the world and for Christ.”32
Be Part of Writing a New Story
You can help write a new story for girls around the world. There are several ways you can give girls the chance to know their value in God’s eyes and to embrace the future with confidence and strength. Here are just a few:
Sponsor a girl through a child sponsorship program
Many organizations, including GFA’s Child Sponsorship Program, Compassion International and World Vision, are working to provide children with education, nutritious food and opportunities in the name of Christ. By sponsoring a girl, you can help give her education in a nurturing environment, unlocking the door for her to overcome poverty and setbacks. Even if you choose to sponsor a boy, you will still be helping these organizations advance their mission of educating both boys and girls, and you will most likely be giving this boy the opportunity to learn respect for girls and women.
Promote awareness, justice and accountability
Because of their vulnerable position in society, girls need advocates. They need adults to educate others about the importance of defending a girl’s life, dignity, health and education from many dangers. They need adults to fight for them when they face abuse, trafficking or forced marriage. They need adults to remove corruption from business supply chains and eliminate child labor from the marketplace. To promote awareness, justice and accountability, you can partner with organizations such as International Justice Mission to provide legal help and aftercare to girls who have been subjected to trafficking, sexual abuse or child labor. You can use information from Freedom Seal and other accountability initiatives to ensure that you are only supporting businesses that prevent girls from being exploited in child labor.
Partner with women missionaries
Women missionaries can effectively minister to girls’ and women’s emotional and spiritual needs. By supporting women missionaries like Ruth through prayer and finances, you can share hope with girls who need to know there is a God who loves and values them.
Sometimes the most effective way to help others is to seek God’s mercy and intervention. One individual can’t remove abuse or corruption from social structures, but when one individual joins with other individuals to intercede for girls who are neglected and abused, crying out for God’s justice, the Lord transforms hearts and lives—the first step toward social transformation.
Give To Help Girls at Risk
If you want to help girls at risk in South Asia, consider a one-time donation to stand in the gap for children who have been rescued from desperate situations into GFA's Child Sponsorship Program but still lack permanent sponsors to cover their monthly needs to remain in school.
How Your Donations Are Applied
We value your donation and are committed to good stewardship of the funds entrusted to us by our friends and donors. All gift options represent GFA’s actual ministry efforts to meet the diverse needs of individuals and communities. Regardless of particular designations, monies are raised for ministry purposes, and GFA retains discretion to use donated funds in any manner that serves GFA’s charitable objectives.