We must do more to end child marriage
From the char of Lalmonirhat to a slum in Khulna, I have met many adolescent girls across Bangladesh who are united in their resolve to continue education, who make extraordinary efforts to go to schools. For example, a girl in Khulna has been collecting and selling scrap papers in order to earn money to pay for her tuition fees and related costs. She persuaded her mother to go to the local councillor to explore if any funding is available to purchase educational materials. I can share many stories like that. But most of the girls are also afraid of dropping out of schools, as their parents may arrange their marriage—a fate many of their classmates already had to accept.
I am reminded of all these girls as we observe the International Day of the Girl Child today with the theme: "My voice, our equal future". What is the future of our girls, especially against the backdrop of a time when we are facing a global pandemic?
According to "Ending Child Marriage: A Profile of Progress in Bangladesh" (a report launched by Unicef on October 7, 2020), Bangladesh has the highest prevalence of child marriage in South Asia and ranks among 10 countries in the world with the highest incidents. The prevalence of child marriage in Bangladesh has dropped from over 90 percent in 1970. Still, the rate remains very high. About 51 percent of women who are currently aged 20-24 were married while they were still children.
Child marriage is a serious violation of children's rights. It's a problem that the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 5.3 aims to eliminate by 2030. In addition, child marriage has an impact on the realisation of other SDGs related to education, health and well-being. Child marriage is one of the most significant reasons for school drop-out of girls, essentially marking the end of childhood for them. It also increases the risk of domestic violence for the girl children. Married adolescents are also not able to participate in the decision-making process of families. Adolescent mothers are more likely to suffer from birth-related complications than adult women.
In Bangladesh, a girl's risk of child marriage is aggravated by certain factors. Girls living in rural areas and poorer households are more vulnerable. This is also linked to girls' education. The rate of child marriage begins to decline only among those with at least 10 years of schooling, and prevalence falls below 50 percent among those with at least 12 years of schooling. Moreover, lack of social safety for adolescent girls, natural disasters, and weak enforcement of laws are some of the reasons contributing to child marriage. Our patriarchal society places a disproportionate emphasis on girls' and women's caregiving and reproductive roles. As a result, there is a high level of social acceptance of child marriage, which is a significant barrier to ending this practice.
Covid-19 has hit men and women, and boys and girls differently. Girls, especially those belonging to marginalised groups, are being particularly affected by the secondary impacts of the outbreak. This is due to harmful social norms and discrimination based on age and gender.
There has been an increase in domestic violence during Covid-19 in different countries of the world. Children are at an increased risk of sexual violence and exploitation, trafficking, child labour, etc. There are heightened risks of child marriage while children and families cope with school closures, loss of income, and increased pressure in the home. Girls face an unequal burden of unpaid care and domestic work, which will increase as they stay at home. Many may not be able to return to schools due to caregiving responsibilities and the decline in family income. That is what happened in West Africa after the Ebola crisis.
Some NGOs are already reporting an increase in incidents of child marriage following the outbreak of Covid-19 in Bangladesh. According to the Building Better Future for Girls project of Plan International Bangladesh, there were 291 child marriages in Kurigram alone between January and August this year. There are reports of increasing sexual harassment in different parts of the country, as many returned to their villages. Some parents are arranging the marriage of girls due to safety concerns.
Are we really serious about achieving the SDG target to end child marriage by 2030, and the national target to end child marriage by 2041? If yes, progress must be made at least 8 times faster than the rate of the past decade to meet the national target, and 17 times faster to meet the SDG target.
In addition to strict enforcement of the relevant law against child marriage, proper birth and marriage registration must be ensured. The government should also prioritise the safe re-opening of schools, as the longer girls stay out of school, the higher the risk of child marriage,
In addition, there should be more investment in girls. The government should develop and implement fully-costed, multisectoral national action plans with strict accountability mechanisms. This should involve not just the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, but also the ministries of health, education, justice, and finance.
Targeted measures should be taken to protect and support incomes of families with girl children, including social protection. Specific attention should be given to the unequal distribution of unpaid care and domestic work during this time so that it does not hinder girls' return to schools.
For a wider impact, government and non-government actors must also ensure the engagement of communities, parents, and particularly girls and women to address the harmful gender norms and build support to end child marriage.
We are celebrating the International Day of the Girl Child at a time when the nation is seething with anger against the rise in incidents of rape and sexual violence against women and girls. In addition to bringing the perpetrators to justice, we need a movement to create a society where girls and women really feel safe and get treated as equal citizens. We must ensure an environment where girls can grow up to be empowered women—economically, socially and politically—and contribute to our society in meaningful ways. Child marriage hinders the possibility of girls in realising their full potential.
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic threatens to roll back progress on ending child marriage. We cannot let that happen. All of us—government, NGOs, media, parents, communities—must do more and be more effective. The question is, are we doing enough?
Laila Khondkar is an international development worker.