Schools have reopened, but can we stem the tide of child marriage?
News of child marriage is unfortunately quite common in Bangladesh. But the report about 50 young girls from the same school being married off during the pandemic is something that hits you especially hard. It happened in Alipur Ideal Secondary Girls' School of the Alipur Union of Satkhira district, according to a national newspaper. School authorities, parents and activists say that child marriage has increased at an alarming rate during the prolonged school closures caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
There is a lack of data on child marriage since the pandemic began. However, non-governmental organisations have confirmed, based on information gleaned from their field-level operations, that child marriage has indeed increased. According to the "Rapid Analysis of Child Marriage Situation during Covid-19" by Manusher Jonno Foundation, at least 13,886 girls from 84 upazilas of 21 districts were forced into child marriage from April to October last year. The media has been reporting on incidents of child marriage during the pandemic quite regularly.
Child marriage is a serious violation of children's rights and a form of sexual violence. Girls who are forced to marry early have increased health problems and face more domestic violence. Child marriage also means school drop-out and an end to childhood. It's worth noting that Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 5.3 aims to eliminate child marriage by 2030. Each year, globally 12 million girls are married before they turn 18. International organisations project that an additional 10 million girls will marry as children by 2030 due to Covid-induced restrictions, school closures, disruption to child marriage programming, and economic instability.
According to "Ending Child Marriage: A Profile of Progress in Bangladesh" (a report launched by Unicef 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 levels of child marriage. About 51 percent of women currently aged 20-24 were married while they were still children. I have been privileged to meet many adolescent girls—from the haors of Sunamganj to the slums of Khulna—who were determined to continue their education but lived with the constant fear of marriage. I wonder how many of them had to give up on their dreams of education and a decent job if they were forced into marriage.
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 society places 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. Parents arrange the marriage of their daughters whenever they find a "suitable groom" without thinking how this would affect their education, health and future.
In Bangladesh, incidence of child marriage begins to decline only among those with at least 10 years of schooling, and its prevalence falls below 50 percent 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. Union-level committees meant to prevent child marriage were not that active either during the pandemic.
Evidence from a multi-country study in Africa and Asia on the pandemic's impacts on the lives of young people shows that families turn to child marriage as a coping strategy to reduce the number 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. This happened to girls in West Africa after the Ebola crisis.
Therefore, it is crucial that girls are especially supported to return to education. This might involve flexible learning, catch-up courses and accelerated learning opportunities. Teachers need to check school enrolment lists to identify and follow up with those girls who have not returned to schools. Specific attention should be paid to the unequal distribution of unpaid care and domestic work so that it does not hinder girls' return to schools.
Targeted initiatives should be taken by the government to protect and support the incomes of families with girl children, including social protection interventions such as cash transfers to reduce the risk of child marriage as an economic coping strategy for the families. Adolescent girls should also have opportunities for skills development to find jobs. Initiatives should be taken to strengthen the child protection system so that communities themselves can protect girls from early marriage. Girls' safety in the communities must be ensured. Also, efforts should be made to bring back married girls to schools. All stakeholders have to listen to girls while taking decisions affecting their lives.
In addition to the proper enforcement of the law against child marriage, birth and marriage registration systems should be strengthened. Local administrations must perform their duties effectively to prevent child marriage. Parental awareness of the rights of girls to education, health and protection should be increased. Social norms regarding the acceptance of child marriage have to be addressed so that community members learn to respect the academic and professional aspirations and achievements of girls and women. NGOs 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, then we must make this a priority and bring momentum to implementing the plans we have made. The government, parents, teachers, civil society, the media, community members, etc. all must be more committed to ensuring that our girls can grow up to realise their full potential.
Laila Khondkar is an international development worker.