Child marriage is very common in Bangladesh, but the pandemic has triggered it. If we consider the recent news report about 50 young girls from a school have been married off during this pandemic, it will hurt you much. It occurred in Alipur Ideal Secondary Girls School in Alipur union under Sathkhira Sadar Upazila. Civil society, guardians and school authorities opined that child marriage has alarmingly been intensified due to prolonged school closures caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
There is lack of information on child marriage. However, data of different NGOs show that child marriage has increased. According to the “Rapid Analysis of Child Marriage Situation during Covid-19” conducted by National NGO, at least 13,886 girls in 84 upazilas of 21 districts were forced into child marriage from April to October last year. They also have been reporting on the incidents of child marriage during the pandemic in regular basis.
According to “Ending Child Marriage: A profile of progress in Bangladesh” (UNICEF report in October 2020), Bangladesh has the highest prevalence of child marriage in South Asia and ranks among 10 countries in the world with the highest number of child marriage. About 51 per cent of women currently aged between 20 and 24 were married while they were still children.
Poverty, lack of social safety of adolescent girls, natural disasters, and weak enforcement of child marriage restraint Act-2017 are some of the reasons for child marriage in Bangladesh. Our patriarchal mind places disproportionate emphasis on girls and women’s caregiving and reproductive roles only. As a result, there is a high level of social acceptance of child marriage. Guardians arrange the marriage of their daughters whenever find a “suitable groom” without thinking how this would affect their education, health, and the future.
In Bangladesh, incidence of child marriage starts to decline only among those with at least 10 years of schooling and its prevalence down below 50 per cent among those with at least 12 years of schooling. It is, therefore, extremely important that girls stay at schools. In many places, as the schools were closed for so long, friends and teachers did not know about the forced marriages of victims and could not do anything to prevent them. Different community-based committees are not active to prevent child marriage during this pandemic.
Studies find that families turn to child marriage as a coping strategy to reduce the numbers of mouths to feed. Concerns regarding joblessness, poverty, food shortages and fear and insecurity among parents due to the pandemic are the reasons for a surge in child marriage in different parts of the world. This is reversing the progress made over the last 25 years.
In Bangladesh, it is estimated that 24.5 million people have become new poor due to the pandemic. This means that even now, when schools have finally reopened after 543 days, girls especially in the rural areas are less likely to return to classrooms because their families cannot pay the fees. This, among other factors, increases their risk of early marriage. Many girls have become the main caregiver for their sick family members or had to look after siblings. They may not return to schools. Similar incidents happened to girls in West Africa after the Ebola crisis.
Goal-oriented initiatives should be taken by the government to protect and support the incomes of families with girl children. Adolescent should have opportunities for skills development to find jobs. Action should be taken to strengthen girls’ protection systems so that communities themselves can protect girls from early marriage. Girls’ safety in the community must be ensured. Also, efforts should be made to bring back married girls to schools. All stakeholders must listen to girls while taking decisions affecting their lives.
In this connection, birth and marriage registration systems should be strengthen to ensure proper enforcement of the law against child marriage. Local administrations must perform their duties effectively to prevent child marriage. Parental awareness of girls’ rights to education, health and protection should be enhanced. Social norms regarding the acceptance of child marriage must be addressed so that community members learn to respect the academic and professional aspirants and achievements of girls and women. NGO’s and government authorities can work in a collaborative way for a greater impact in this area.
It is our collective failure that we have not been able to prevent so many child marriages during the pandemic. And the danger, even after schools have reopened, is far from over. If we are serious about achieving the national target of ending child marriage by 2041, we must make this a priority and bring momentum to implementing the plans we have made. The government, parents, teachers, civil society, media and community members must be more committed to emphasis the negative consequences and impact of child marriage and create a congenial atmosphere where girls can grow up to their full potential.
The writer works as a Child Protection Specialist in International Humanitarian Organisation