China said on Monday that it would allow all married couples to have three children, ending a two-child policy that has failed to raise the country’s declining birthrates and avert a demographic crisis.
The announcement by the ruling Communist Party represents an acknowledgment that its limits on reproduction, the world’s toughest, have jeopardized the country’s future. The labor pool is shrinking and the population is graying, threatening the industrial strategy that China has used for decades to emerge from poverty to become an economic powerhouse.
But it is far from clear that relaxing the policy further will pay off. People in China have responded coolly to the party’s earlier move, in 2016, to allow couples to have two children. To them, such measures do little to assuage their anxiety over the rising cost of education and of supporting aging parents, made worse by the lack of day care and the pervasive culture of long work hours.
In a nod to those concerns, the party also indicated on Monday that it would improvematernity leave and workplace protections, pledging to make it easier for couples to have more children. But those protections are all but absent for single mothers in China, who despite the push for more children still lack access to benefits.
when the number of babies born dropped to the lowest since the Mao era. The country’s total fertility rate — an estimate of the number of children born over a woman’s lifetime — now stands at 1.3, well below the replacement rate of 2.1, raising the possibility of a shrinking population over time.
The announcement on Monday still splits the difference between individual reproductive rights and government limits over women’s bodies. Prominent voices within China have called on the party to scrap its restrictions on births altogether. But Beijing, under Xi Jinping, the party leader who has pushed for greater control in the daily lives of the country’s 1.4 billion people, has resisted.
“Opening it up to three children is far from enough,” said Huang Wenzheng, a demography expert with the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based research center. “It should be fully liberalized, and giving birth should be strongly encouraged.”
“This should be regarded as a crisis for the survival of the Chinese nation, even beyond the pandemic and other environmental issues,” Mr. Huang added. “There should never have been a birth restriction policy in the first place. So it’s not a question of whether this is too late.”
The party made the announcement after a meeting by the Politburo, a top decision-making body, though it was not immediately clear when the change would take effect. In an acknowledgment that raising the birth limits might not be enough, the party also pledged to beef up support for families, though it did not provide details.
tacitly allowing couples to have three children.
But more couples now embrace the concept that one child is enough, a cultural shift that has dragged down birthrates. And some say they are not interested in children at all, even after the latest announcement.
“No matter how many babies they open it up to, I’m not going to have any because children are too troublesome and expensive,” said Li Shan, a 26-year-old product manager at an internet company in Beijing. “I’m impatient and worried that I won’t be able to educate the child well.”
forcing women of Muslim ethnic minorities, like the Uyghurs, to have fewer babies in an effort to suppress their population growth.
A full reversal of the rules could also be seen as a repudiation of a deeply unpopular policy that the party has long defended.
“If a government makes a U-turn today in the West, it’s kind of embarrassing,” said Stuart Gietel-Basten, a professor of social science and public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “But in a country like China, where the same party has been in charge for 70 years or so, then it makes a statement on the policies that were implemented. And so that’s why I think any change that goes through will be quite gradual.”
For decades, China’s family-planning restrictions empowered the authorities to impose fines on most couples who had more than one child and compel hundreds of millions of Chinese women to undergo invasive procedures.
Gao Bin, a 27-year-old seller of lottery tickets in the eastern city of Qingdao, recalled how his motherhad to flee to three different places just to escape family-planning officials because she wanted to keep him. He said that his mother still cries when she recounts those days.
“To be honest, when I saw the announcement of this policy, I was pretty angry,” Mr. Gao said. “I think the government lacks a humane attitude when it comes to fertility.”
When Fan Jianhua had her third daughter last April, she was afraid that she would be fined for violating China’s birth limits.
Ms. Fan was already heavily in debt paying for treatment for her 6-year-old, who has leukemia. To her relief, when she registered her new baby with the police, she didn’t have to pay the $7,500 fine.
“I was really happy and could finally relax,” said Ms. Fan, 34, a stay-at-home mother in the central city of Danjiangkou, in Hubei Province.
Slowly, in fits and starts, China’s ruling Communist Party is loosening its long-held restrictions over childbirth and women’s bodies. Some local governments have tacitly allowed couples to have more than two children. Beijing has said civil servants will no longer be fired for such infringements. Party leaders have pledged to make population policies more inclusive, a signal that some have taken to mean the rules will be eased further.
decline in birthrates. A once-a-decade population census, released on Tuesday, showed that the number of births last year fell to the lowest since the Mao era. Low fertility translates to fewer workers and weaker demand, which could stunt growth in the world’s second-largest economy.
But the party is wary of giving up control and has resisted scrapping birth restrictions wholesale. Instead, Beijing has been taking a piecemeal approach by slowly dismantling the once-powerful family-planning bureaucracy and carving out exemptions. In many places, police officers, employers and city officials are deciding how strictly, or loosely, to enforce the rules.
That can mean more freedom for some, like Ms. Fan, to have more children. But it also creates uncertainty about the risks, adding to a reluctance about having more children.
The strategy could also founder amid broad cultural changes. Anxiety over the rising cost of education, housing and health care is now deeply ingrained in society. Many Chinese simply prefer smaller families, and the government’s efforts to boost the birthrate, including introducing a two-child policy in 2016, have largely fizzled.
“If the restrictions on family planning are not lifted, and they are encouraging births at the same time, this is self-contradictory,” said Huang Wenzheng, a demography expert with the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based research center. He said that removing all birth limits would convey an important message. “I think such a step has to be taken.”
official murmurs about a reconsideration of the one-child policy surfaced but were quickly dismissed. It took years before the government moved to allow all couples to have two children.
Now, the population is aging more rapidly than those of many developed countries, including the United States, and some argue that the government cannot afford to keep any restrictions on procreation.
“We have to take advantage of the fact that a certain number of residents now are willing to give birth but aren’t allowed to,” China’s central bank said in a working paper it published on April 14. “If we wait to lift it when no one wants to give birth, it will be useless.”
harshly enforced family-planning rules in what Beijing has depicted as a fight against religious extremism. The campaign has led in recent years to a rise in sterilizations and contraceptive procedures — forcibly imposed in some cases — in the region’s Muslim-dominated areas.
China’s family-planning policy has long given local officials a powerful weapon of control — one that may be hard, or costly, to wrest back. Before they were unwound, family-planning agencies hired around eight million people, down to the village level, who corralled women to be fitted with intrauterine devices or coerced them into abortions.
The officials also collected large fines from couples who broke the rules. One senior researcher at the Central Party School estimated in 2015 that the fees amounted to between $3 billion and $5 billion annually.
In recent years, the government has been reassigning family-planning employees to roles including in population research and tackling Covid-19. But local governments retain the power to enforce birth limits as they see fit, which has led to inconsistencies.
The central government said in May last year that civil servants did not have to lose their jobs for violating birth limits, yet months later, a village committee in the eastern city of Hangzhou fired a woman after she had a third child — prompting a public outcry.
Ultimately, the fate of China’s family-planning policies may change little. A generation of highly educated women are putting off marriage and childbirth for other reasons, including a rejection of traditional attitudes that dictate women should bear most of the responsibility of raising children and doing housework.
Liu Qing, a 38-year-old editor of children’s books in Beijing, said getting married and having children were never in her future because they would come at too great a personal cost.
“All the things that you want — your ideals and your ambitions — have to be sacrificed,” Ms. Liu said.
Ms. Liu said Chinese society imposed a motherhood penalty on women, pointing to the discrimination that mothers often faced in hiring.
“I’m furious about this environment,” she said. “I’m not the kind of person who would accept this reality and compromise. I just won’t.”
For other Chinese, having fewer children is a matter of necessity when holes in the country’s social safety net mean that a major illness can lead to financial ruin.
Ms. Fan, the woman in Hubei who was spared a fine, said that she and her husband, a laborer, were getting increasingly desperate. Public health insurance had covered half the cost of her daughter’s treatment for leukemia, but they were on the hook for $76,000.
She had a third child only because she heard that a sibling’s cord blood could help in the treatment of leukemia. But she later learned that such treatment would cost more than $100,000.
“I don’t dare think about the future,” Ms. Fan said. She added that if her daughter’s condition deteriorated or they went broke, they would have to give up treatment.
“We can only leave it up to her fate,” she said.
Research was contributed by Claire Fu, Liu Yi, Albee Zhang and Elsie Chen.
Births are falling. The population is aging. The work force of the world’s second-largest economy is shrinking.
China’s latest once-a-decade census, which was conducted last year, showed the slowest population growth since the 1960s, confirming that the country is in the midst of an urgent demographic crisis.
The results may push the government to loosen its family planning restrictions, which have shaped the most intimate aspects of Chinese society — marriage, childbirth and child-rearing — for decades. But the stark need for change has also underscored how reluctant the authorities have been to fully let go of control.
according to World Bank data. Last year, just 12 million babies were born in China, the lowest official number since 1961, as the country was emerging from a devastating famine.
Experts cautioned that the pandemic may have been a major factor, but births have now declined for four consecutive years.
The numbers make clear that China’s aging crisis will not be resolved anytime soon. As older Chinese people occupy a greater share of the population, while the younger work force who would support them declines, China’s pension funds and underdeveloped facilities for older adults are sure to feel strain. Adults above 60 now make up 18.7 percent of the population, compared with 13.3 percent in 2010.
Liang Jianzhang, a demography expert at Peking University, said he expected that the government would lift its remaining limits on fertility soon. Five years ago it ended its one-child policy and allowed families to have two children, but families who have more can still be penalized or denied benefits.
forcing women to have fewer babies as part of an effort to control the Muslim ethnic minorities there.
China’s gender gap is shrinking, but discrimination remains.
Stuart Gietel-Basten, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who studies demography. But that ratio is still higher than normal, suggesting a lingering preference for boys, he added.
The advancement of women faces more official obstacles, too. In an effort to address the fertility crisis, officials in recent years have sought to push women back into traditional gender roles. Feminist activists have been detained or censored online.
39 percent of adults aged 25 to 64 in countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development had some form of tertiary education.) But it is a tremendous accomplishment for a country that in 1997 had fewer than 3.5 million undergraduate and graduate students.
Still, experts have noted that the surging numbers of college graduates may bring a new problem: a dearth of well-paid jobs to employ them. China’s economy is still largely reliant on blue-collar labor. Ning Jizhe, the head of China’s National Bureau of Statistics, acknowledged the gap at a news conference about the census on Tuesday.
“Employment pressure on college students is increasing,” he said. “The pace of industrial transformation and upgrading needs to speed up.”
Unless the new crop of educated young people can find stable jobs, Professor Gietel-Basten said, the fertility rate may drop even further. “If you’ve got a situation where you have graduate unemployment and it’s difficult to access these good jobs,” he said, “why would you have more babies?”
Wealthier centers are continuing to grow, while poorer areas lag.
Wang Feng, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine. As the northeast continues to empty out, those disparities may become even more pronounced, he added.
When the government ordered women in her mostly Muslim community to be fitted with contraceptive devices, Qelbinur Sedik pleaded for an exemption. She was nearly 50 years old, she told officials in Xinjiang. She had obeyed the government’s birth limits and had only one child.
It was no use. The workers threatened to take her to the police if she continued resisting, she said. She gave in and went to a government clinic where a doctor, using metal forceps, inserted an intrauterine device to prevent pregnancy. She wept through the procedure.
“I felt like I was no longer a normal woman,” Ms. Sedik said, choking up as she described the 2017 ordeal. “Like I was missing something.”
Across much of China, the authorities are encouraging women to have more children, as they try to stave off a demographic crisis from a declining birthrate. But in the far western region of Xinjiang, they are forcing them to have fewer, as they tighten their grip on Muslim ethnic minorities.
internment camps and prisons. The authorities have placed the region under tight surveillance, sent residents to work in factories and placed children in boarding schools.
By targeting Muslim women, the authorities are going even further, attempting to orchestrate a demographic shift that will affect the population for generations. Birthrates in the region have already plunged in recent years, as the use of invasive birth control procedures has risen, findings that were previously documented by a researcher, Adrian Zenz, with The Associated Press.
crimes against humanity and genocide, in large part because of the efforts to stem the population growth of Muslim minorities. The Trump administration in January was the first government to declare the crackdown a genocide, with reproductive oppression as a leading reason; the Biden administration affirmed the label in March.
Ms. Sedik’s experience, reported in The Guardian and elsewhere, helped form the basis for the decision by the United States government. “It was one of the most detailed and compelling first-person accounts we had,” Kelley E. Currie, a former United States ambassador who was involved in the government’s discussions. “It helped to put a face on the horrifying statistics we were seeing.”
Beijing has accused its critics of pushing an anti-China agenda.
in March. “No one nor any agency shall interfere.”
To women in Xinjiang, the orders from the government were clear: They didn’t have a choice.
Last year, a community worker in Urumqi, the regional capital, where Ms. Sedik had lived, sent messages saying women between 18 and 59 had to submit to pregnancy and birth control inspections.
“If you fight with us at the door and if you refuse to cooperate with us, you will be taken to the police station,” the worker wrote, according to screenshots of the WeChat messages that Ms. Sedik shared with The Times.
encourage births, including by providing tax subsidies and free IUD removals. But from 2015 to 2018, Xinjiang’s share of the country’s total new IUD insertions increased, even as use of the devices fell nationwide.
The contraception campaign appeared to work.
report by a Xinjiang government research center read. “They have avoided the pain of being trapped by extremism and being turned into reproductive tools.”
Women like Ms. Sedik, who had obeyed the rules, were not spared. After the IUD procedure, Ms. Sedik suffered from heavy bleeding and headaches. She later had the device secretly removed, then reinserted. In 2019, she decided to be sterilized.
“The government had become so strict, and I could no longer take the IUD,’” said Ms. Sedik, who now lives in the Netherlands after fleeing China in 2019. “I lost all hope in myself.”
‘The women of Xinjiang are in danger’
leaked last year from Karakax County, in southwestern Xinjiang, which revealed that one of the most common reasons cited for detention was violating birth planning policies.
government notice from a county in Ili, unearthed by Mr. Zenz, the researcher.
operated under secrecy — many were subjected tointerrogations. For some, the ordeal was worse.
Tursunay Ziyawudun was detained in a camp in Ili Prefecture for 10 months for traveling to Kazakhstan. She said that on three occasions, she was taken to a dark cell where two to three masked men raped her and used electric batons to forcibly penetrate her.
“You become their toy,” Ms. Ziyawudun said in a telephone interview fromthe United States,where she now lives, as she broke down sobbing. “You just want to die at the time, but unfortunately you don’t.”
Gulbahar Jalilova, the third former detainee, said in an interview that she had been beaten in a camp and that a guard exposed himself during an interrogation and wanted her to perform oral sex.
The three former detainees, along with two others who spoke to The Times, also described being regularly forced to take unidentified pills or receive injections of medication that caused nausea and fatigue. Eventually, a few of them said, they stopped menstruating.
The former detainees’ accounts could not be independently verified because tight restrictions in Xinjiang make unfettered access to the camps impossible. The Chinese government has forcefully denied all allegations of abuse in the facilities.
Beijing has sought to undermine the credibility of the women who have spoken out, accusing them of lying and of poor morals, all while claiming to be a champion of women’s rights.
‘We are all Chinese’
Even in their homes, the women did not feel safe. Uninvited Chinese Communist Party cadres would show up and had to be let in.
The party sends out more than a million workers to regularly visit, and sometimes stay in, the homes of Muslims, as part of a campaign called “Pair Up and Become Family.” To many Uyghurs, the cadres were little different from spies.
The cadres were tasked with reporting on whether the families they visited showed signs of “extremist behavior.” For women, this included any resentment they might have felt about state-mandated contraceptive procedures.
When the party cadres came to stay in 2018, Zumret Dawut had just been forcibly sterilized.
Four Han cadres visited her in Urumqi, bringing yogurt and eggs to help with the recovery, she recalled. They were also armed with questions: Did she have any issues with the sterilization operation? Was she dissatisfied with the government’s policy?
“I was so scared that if I said the wrong thing they would send me back to the camps,” said Ms. Dawut, a mother of three. “So I just told them, ‘We are all Chinese people and we have to do what the Chinese law says.’”
But the officials’ unwelcome gaze settled also on Ms. Dawut’s 11-year-old daughter, she said. One cadre, a 19-year-old man who was assigned to watch the child, would sometimes call Ms. Dawut and suggest taking her daughter to his home. She was able to rebuff him with excuses that the child was sick, she said.
Other women reported having to fend off advances even in the company of their husbands.
Ms. Sedik, the Uzbek teacher, was still recovering from a sterilization procedure when her “relative” — her husband’s boss — showed up.
She was expected to cook, clean and entertain him even though she was in pain from the operation. Worse, he would ask to hold her hand or to kiss and hug her, she said.
Mostly, Ms. Sedik agreed to his requests, terrified that if she refused, he would tell the government that she was an extremist. She rejected him only once: when he asked to sleep with her.
It went on like this every month or so for two years — until she left the country.
“He would say, ‘Don’t you like me? Don’t you love me?’” she recalled. “‘If you refuse me, you are refusing the government.’”
“I felt so humiliated, oppressed and angry,” she said. “But there was nothing I could do.”
Amy Chang Chien and Fatima Er contributed reporting.
The assault of a 13-year-old girl in Venezuela and the arrest of her mother and a teacher who helped her end the pregnancy have forced a national debate about legalizing abortion.
MÉRIDA, Venezuela — She wore a ponytail and a red T-shirt, the words “Glitter Girl” sketched across the front.
Gripping her mother’s hand, she spoke softly, describing how she had been forced out of school by Venezuela’s economic crisis, and then was raped at least six times by a neighborhood predator who threatened to harm her family if she spoke out. At just 13, she became pregnant.
With her mother, she sought out a doctor, who told her the pregnancy endangered her life, and then a former teacher, who provided pills that induced an abortion.
But ending a pregnancy is illegal in almost all circumstances in Venezuela. And now the girl was speaking up, she said, because her teacher, Vannesa Rosales, was in jail, facing more than a decade in prison for helping her end a pregnancy — while the accused rapist remained free.
local and international press earlier this year, has become a point of outrage for women’s rights activists, who say it demonstrates the way the country’s economic and humanitarian crisis has stripped away protections for young women and girls. (The Times is not identifying the girl because she is a minor.)
The country’s decline, presided over by President Nicolás Maduro and exacerbated by U.S. sanctions, has crippled schools, shuttered community programs, sent millions of parents abroad and eviscerated the justice system, leaving many vulnerable to violent actors who flourish amid impunity.
But the girl’s assault, and Ms. Rosales’s arrest, has also become a rallying cry for activists who say it is time for Venezuela to have a serious discussion about further legalizing abortion, an issue, they argue, that is now more important than ever.
at least open to a discussion on the issue.
The country’s penal code, which dates back to the 1800s, criminalizes abortion in nearly all cases, with punishments for pregnant women lasting six months to two years and one to nearly three years for abortion providers.
An exception allows doctors to perform abortions “to save the life” of a pregnant woman.
But to obtain a legal abortion, a girl or woman must first find a doctor who will diagnose her with a specific life-threatening condition, said Dr. Jairo Fuenmayor, president of the country’s gynecologic society, and then have her case reviewed before a hospital ethics board.
The process is “cumbersome,” he said, and there are “very few” women who go through it.
The 13-year-old girl may have been eligible for a rare legal abortion, but the process is so infrequently publicized, and there so few doctors who will grant one, that neither she nor her mother knew they could seek one out.
Some women believe that simply raising the issue with a doctor will land them in the hands of the police.
legalize abortion, elevating a discussion about the issue in a region that has long had some of the strictest abortion laws in the world.
“We can ride the wave of the triumph in Argentina,” said Gioconda Espina, a longtime Venezuelan women’s rights activist.
Legalization, however, is far from imminent.
Venezuela is a deeply Catholic country, and many on both sides of the political aisle reject the idea of ending a pregnancy, even amid a crisis.
“Abortion is something that people naturally or instinctively reject,” said Christine de Vollmer, a Venezuelan activist who opposes the procedure. Venezuela may be “chaotic,” she said, but, “I don’t think the idea will catch.”
Hugo Chávez, who began the country’s socialist-inspired revolution in 1999, never took a strong position on abortion, but often asked feminist activists — many of whom supported abortion rights and his cause — to put his larger political movement ahead of their own demands.
sometimes disappeared for months or years in the Venezuelan justice system, and she worried that her partner was about to do the same.
Ms. Rosales’s lawyer, Venus Faddoul, exited the courthouse. No hearing today, she said. And it would probably be weeks before a judge took up the case.
Ms. Escobar collapsed, consumed by anger and anxiety. Soon, she was shaking violently and struggling to breathe.
“We are powerless,” she cried.
internet outrage that Venezuela’s attorney general, Tarek Saab, took to Twitter to clarify that he had issued an arrest warrant for the accused rapist.
The authorities in Mérida soon released Ms. Rosales to await trial under house arrest.
Abortion rights activists last month met for hours with Mr. Rodríguez, the National Assembly president, where they proposed a change to the penal code, among other ideas.
The country’s influential association of Catholic bishops responded with a letter imploring the country to stick with the status quo.
Powerful international organizations, the association said, were trying to legalize abortion “by appealing to fake concepts of modernity, inventing ‘new human rights,’ and justifying policies that go against God’s designs.”
Ms. Rosales remains in legal limbo. Six months after her arrest, she has yet to have her first day in court. The accused person is still free.
“This goes beyond being a negligent state,” she said. “This is a state that is actively working against women.”
WASHINGTON — Women’s access to contraceptives and reproductive care is a global human right that will be monitored by the United States, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken declared on Tuesday, reversing a Trump administration policy that had overlooked discrimination or denials of women seeking sexual health services worldwide.
The announcement was one of several departures Mr. Blinken made from the previous administration’s approach as the State Department issued its annual report on human rights violations, even while he similarly condemned abuses and state-sanctioned oppression from China to Syria to Venezuela that have continued for years.
The report was completed during the Trump administration and, Mr. Blinken said, did not include examples of women who were refused health care and family planning information in nearly 200 countries and territories in 2020. He has directed officials to compile that data and identify violators this year “because women’s rights — including sexual and reproductive rights — are human rights,” Mr. Blinken told reporters at the department.
Mr. Blinken also announced that he had dismantled an advisory committee, set up by Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state at the time, that had prioritized religious liberties and property rights among universal freedoms. Critics of the panel had accused Mr. Pompeo of using it to promote his evangelical Christian beliefs and conservative politics.
had approved the assassination, although the United States has not announced sanctions or other penalties against him.
Prince Mohammed was a key ally to President Donald J. Trump, who had refused to condemn the rising Saudi leader for the death of Mr. Khashoggi, who lived in Virginia. The human rights reports issued by the State Department have also stopped short of directly accusing the crown prince, although Tuesday’s review did note the arrest and abduction by Saudi security forces of the activist Amani al-Zain in May, after she referred to Prince Mohammed as “father of the saw” during a video chat months earlier. Mr. Khashoggi was dismembered by a bone saw when he went to pick up documents in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
Although career diplomats took pains to describe the report as a matter-of-fact rundown of human rights around the world, many of its conclusions divided American activists along political lines.
“It’s unfortunate that the many pro-life, pro-religious freedom positions that President Trump had advanced internationally are being rolled back by the Biden administration,” said Travis Weber, a vice president of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian organization.
Mr. Pompeo declared Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs — including forced sterilization and internment camps — a genocide, a position Mr. Blinken has retained.
Mr. Blinken called the Chinese abuses in Xinjiang evidence that “the trend lines on human rights continue to move in the wrong direction,” and he cited violence or oppression in Myanmar, Russia, Uganda and the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia as other examples.
All are “indications that the Biden administration is taking seriously its commitment to hold both allies and adversaries to a high standard on human rights,” said Sarah Holewinski, the director of the Human Rights Watch office in Washington.
She called the State Department’s return to monitoring reproductive health access for women and girls “a particularly big deal” after it had been cast aside.
“When women die from preventable pregnancy-related causes, there are likely to exist policies and laws that undervalued their life,” Ms. Holewinski said.
Medical workers and reproductive rights activists had long criticized the Trump administration for refusing to fund health clinics that provide abortions or otherwise support women who needed care. That has led to fewer health providers in some of the world’s neediest places, even for women seeking other kinds of medical attention, just as the coronavirus spread around the globe.
As a matter of international law, Mr. Weber said, “there is no right to abortion.”
Mr. Blinken did not specifically mention abortion in his remarks about protecting women’s access to family planning care. But he also noted the strain that the pandemic had placed on women, racial and ethnic minorities, and others based on their disabilities or sexual orientation.
Erosions of human rights, he said, “are being worsened by Covid-19, which autocratic governments have used as a pretext to target their critics.”
RAPTI SONARI, Nepal — Sapana dreamed of becoming a government official. Each night, in her hut along a bumpy dirt road, the 17-year-old lit a single solar-powered bulb dangling from the ceiling and hit the books, plotting out a future much different than her mother’s.
But as the coronavirus crept across Nepal, closing the schools, Sapana lost focus. Stuck in her village with little to do, she struck up a friendship with an out-of-work laborer.
They fell in love. Soon they married. Now, Sapana has given up her professional dreams, with no plans to return to school.
“Things might have been different if I hadn’t discontinued my studies,” Sapana said recently, as she sat breastfeeding her 2-month-old son on the floor of her simple home. Her family name was withheld to protect her privacy.
Child marriage is increasing at alarming levels in many places, the United Nations says, and the coronavirus pandemic is reversing years of hard-earned progress toward keeping young women in school.
In a report released on Monday, the United Nations Children’s Fund predicted that an additional 10 million girls this decade will be at risk of child marriage, defined as a union before the age of 18. Henrietta Fore, UNICEF’s executive director, said that “Covid-19 has made an already difficult situation for millions of girls even worse.”
forced by parents or other authority figures into marriage with older men. But child advocates also worry about the young women who, because of the pandemic’s impact, are drifting away from school and see early marriage as their only option, abandoning ambitions for an education and a better life.
Many child marriages are never registered. UNICEF estimates that 650 million girls and women alive today were married in childhood. Child advocates say they are seeing an upsurge in places where it has long been a problem, such as India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia and Malawi, where teen pregnancies in some areas have tripled.
In Nepal, where the legal age for marriage is 20, the situation seems especially acute. Interlocking problems particular to the country and this moment make it difficult for many young women to avoid early marriage.
One of Asia’s poorest nations, Nepal relies on remittances and tourism. The pandemic has devastated both. Usually, at this time of year, foreign tourists head for the mountains to begin expensive treks into the Annapurna Range and up the slopes of Mount Everest. This year, the money that flows from them into so many layers of Nepal’s economy has all but dried up.
In 2019, Nepal earned $8.25 billion from foreign remittances. But with most of the world’s economies hurting, that remittance stream has also dwindled. Legions of young Nepali men, many of them single, have recently returned home.
Many others have lost their jobs in Nepal’s cities. A great number of young men now roam around their mountainside villages, bored and broke. That was how Sapana met her husband, Hardas.
Hardas, who said he was around 20, used to work as a traveling mason, often in cities such as Kathmandu and Nepalgunj. But after he was laid off in April, at the beginning of the pandemic, he came back to his native Rapti Sonari, a small town of about 10,000 people, 300 miles west of Kathmandu.
The houses are spread out in a maze of dirt roads beneath the hills. Most are made from mud and stone. Sapana’s father, Ram Dayal, bought an auto rickshaw right before the lockdown hit. Now he has monthly payments of 30,000 rupees, around $250, and almost no customers.
Mr. Dayal was not happy that his daughter married so young, but he conceded that her leaving the house helped ease his financial burden. He has five other mouths to feed.
“She would have had a better life if she completed 10th grade,” Mr. Dayal said.
Ghumni, his wife and Sapana’s mother, agreed. She, too, was a child bride and ended up with four children and zero education.
Activists who fight child marriage say they are working in the most difficult conditions they have ever faced, even as the problem worsens. Nepal has imposed harsh restrictions on vehicular movement. When infections surged, activists were confined indoors like everybody else. Several said that the number of child marriages in their areas had doubled or nearly doubled during the pandemic.
“We are at back to square one,” said Hira Khatri, an anti-child-marriage activist in the district that includes Rapti Sonari.
Two years ago, Ms. Khatri said, she intervened and stopped seven child marriages in her village. It did not make her popular. Many families in Nepal are eager to marry off their young daughters. Some villagers threatened to kill her, Ms. Khatri said, and they threw used condoms outside her house to humiliate her.
The police have not been much help. The officers based in villages have been much more focused on enforcing quarantine rules and keeping an eye on virus cases. Some police officials expressed a reluctance to get involved.
“These are serious criminal charges,” said Om Bahadur Rana, a police official in Nepalgunj. “If we file a case because of a child marriage, it could hurt the young people’s chance of ever getting a government job.”
Across central Nepal, many families shared stories of watching their daughters disappear into early marriages.
Mayawati, 17, who also lives in Rapti Sonari, dreamed of studying agriculture. But her family’s struggles during the pandemic made her feel guilty about being a burden to her parents. She dropped out of school, then married a man who worked as a menial laborer. Her dreams, too, have quietly slipped away.
“We have no money,” said Mayawati, whose last name was also withheld. “How was I supposed to continue my studies?”
Mayawati said that most of her friends who had married during the lockdown were now pregnant.
Some people in Nepal feel strongly about what they see as the benefits of child marriage. Several elders in the Madhesi community, based on the southern plains near the border of India, said they had falsified their daughters’ birth certificates to avoid getting in trouble.
“Marrying daughters in their young age has made me happier. It’s our practice,” said Mina Kondu, who said she recently doctored her 16-year-old daughter’s birth certificate, making her appear to be 19, which was still below the legal age but close enough, the family believed.
“The police cannot stop us,” she said.
Ms. Kondu, who lives in a village about three hours’ drive from Sapana’s, said that if the families didn’t arrange for their daughters to marry young, the daughters would do it anyway, without permission, and dishonor the family.
Sapana’s family has accepted her recent marriage. In the span of a couple months, Sapana has shifted from studying for school to taking care of her baby and her new husband.
She collects grass to feed the family’s four buffaloes.
She washes clothes.
She cooks rice and flat bread.
“I couldn’t complete my studies, that’s true,” she said. “My son will do that.”
And then she added, after a moment, “Hopefully, he will marry when he’s fully grown.”
Bhadra Sharma reported from Rapti Sonari, Nepal, and Jeffrey Gettleman from New Delhi.