The coronavirus pandemic is expected to result in a significant rise in child marriage in Syria, compounding a problem already at "alarming" levels thanks to the nation's ongoing conflict along with displacement, poverty and social and cultural pressures, according to World Vision Australia.

A survey conducting with some 626 adolescent girls and boys, families, caregivers and community leaders in north-west Syria earlier this year reveals that almost 100 per cent of girls and some 94 per cent of boys said child marriage, which disproportionately affects girls, has become more commonplace since the conflict began in Syria 10 years ago.

Some 71 per cent of all respondents identified conflict and insecurity as the top driver of child marriage with more than half of the women and girls polled saying fear of sexual exploitation, abuse and kidnapping drove forced early marriages. 

Among males, meanwhile, the increased use of social media was found to be a leading driver of child marriage with the ability of children to interact with members of the opposite sex online seen as a threat to family honour and reputation.

Child Marriage report graphic

Key findings from the World Vision Australia report. PICTURE: Stolen Future: War and Child Marriage in Northwest Syria

The results of the survey, contained a report - Stolen Future: War and Child Marriage in Northwest Syria - which was released this week, also showed that 70 per cent of girls and women surveyed said child brides were at an increased risk of domestic violence and 69 per cent said a loss of educational opportunities was a key consequence of child marriage. 

Figures show some 13 per cent of girls under 18 were married in 2011. But the report says this figure is believed to have jumped "alarmingly" in the 10 years since, a period characterised by conflict and mass displacement. It notes there's an estimated 2.8 million people in need at present out of a population of four million in north-west Syria alone.

Nadine Haddad, World Vision Australia’s senior policy advisor on conflict and fragility and co-author of the report, said child protection is a "major concern" in Syria. 

"As conflict continues, vulnerabilities of children, particularly girls, grows exponentially. This is a stain on our collective moral obligation to uphold the rights of these children. The impact of COVID-19 is already pushing displaced people living in extreme poverty to new depths of destitution, and we could see child marriage figures increase even further."

This week's report comes in the wake of a World Vision report released in May which found that the COVID-19 pandemic posed a "grave threat" to the world's children and predicted a "major spike" in the cases of children experiencing physical, emotional and sexual violence. That report, citing UNFPA data, predicted that up to 13 million extra child marriages would occur over the next 10 years across the globe as a result of the pandemic, with at least four million more girls married off over the next two years, as family livelihoods evaporate and economic crises ensue. That was on top of the 150 million child marriages already expected to occur in that 10-year period.

Haddad urged greater action to address the issue of child marriage in Syria against the backdrop of a meeting to be held next week - Fourth Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria - looking at the country's future.

“If global leaders are serious about the future of Syria, they cannot ignore the issues facing millions of the country’s children," she said. "They have the power and resources to alleviate suffering, and must use this conference to show solidarity with the most affected girls and boys."

Haddad said child marriage is not an "inevitability of conflict".

"It is driven by desperation and vulnerability, and enabled by a collective failure to prioritise and strengthen child protection systems. We hope that the Brussels Conference will mark the beginning of the end of this failure and will finally bring change for vulnerable Syrian children.”