COVID-19 will lead to more child marriages, unintended pregnancies and sexual violence for teens in low- and middle-income countries: researcher

U of A nursing professor leads an international team to study the problem and evaluate solutions that could improve girls’ health and quality of life.


Nursing professor Salima Meherali is leading international research looking for ways to address serious gaps the COVID-19 pandemic has created in health-care services for teen girls in low- and middle-income countries. (Photo: John Ulan)

An increase in child marriages, unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions and sexual violence is likely to be seen for years in low-and middle-income countries as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a University of Alberta nursing researcher who is leading an international study to address the problem.

“In many countries all the health services have been redirected towards preventing COVID-19 infection and providing treatment for COVID-19, which has had a negative impact on adolescent sexual and reproductive health and services, especially for girls,” said Salima Meherali, assistant professor in the Faculty of Nursing and member of the Women and Children's Health Research Institute, who will head up a team of researchers in Pakistan, Ghana, Australia, the United Kingdom and Brazil.

“COVID has meant the closure of social spaces such as schools, community centres and health clinics where many young people receive their information and services,” said Meherali, who is an expert on health literacy.

Approximately 1.8 billion people are between the ages of 10 and 19 years and 90 per cent live in low- and middle-income countries, where they may already face barriers in accessing sexual and reproductive health services. Aid agencies are reporting a surge in concerns; for example, a report from the United Nations Population Fund estimates that an extra 13 million child marriages will occur because of the pandemic. Meherali noted that past epidemics, such as various outbreaks of Ebola in Africa, have led to increases in unintended pregnancies, female genital mutilation and gender-based violence. 

The researchers will identify sustainable and scalable ways to provide virtual health-care services to teens, such as a sexual health app that has been developed for youth in Togo, in West Africa.

“This type of intervention provides evidence-based, age-specific information for youth and connects them with health-care providers,” Meherali said. 

This research is supported by the U of A and the Worldwide Universities Network Research Development Fund, which was set up to address global challenges with a research network made up of 23 universities in 15 countries, including the U of A. The next step for the research team will be to apply for more funding to test culturally appropriate interventions in Pakistan and Ghana. 

Meherali draws on her own direct experience providing nursing care to teens in Karachi, Pakistan, where she began her career. 

“I have seen the consequences of early marriage and unintended pregnancies, and I have seen a lot of gender-based violence,” she said. “It motivates me to work toward improving the health outcomes for these girls and their overall lives.”