The coronavirus pandemic has caused a sharp and steady rise in child marriages in Bangladesh, raising fears that the South Asian country might not meet its goal of eliminating child marriage any time soon.
Before the virus, Bangladesh secured a notable development in curbing child marriage but growing concerns regarding joblessness, poverty, food scarcity and fear and insecurity among parents due to the pandemic are blamed for a surge in child marriages.
Experts fear that child marriages can force girls to abandon school when the pandemic is finished, and they suggest immediate and effective action, including financial measures, to help families stop the practice.
Bangladesh is among the top 10 countries in the world for child marriage. It is eighth from the bottom in South Asia, according to a UN report that said Bangladesh has a 51% child marriage rate.
According to Bangladeshi law, marriage before 18 for girls and 21 for boys, is unlawful.
Rising picture of child marriage
Polli Shomaj, a community-based women's group under international development organization BRAC’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP) has been closely working and monitoring child marriages in Bangladesh. Data from the group that compared 2019 and 2020 showed a sharp rise in child marriage during the pandemic.
BRAC prevented 670 child marriages in 2019 and 1,091 in 2020 through persuasion and education efforts. Meanwhile, there were 167 additional attempts at child marriage in 2019 and 292 in 2020.
There were 22 child marriage attempts in the last three months, according to BRAC data obtained by Anadolu Agency.
An assessment report on March 11 by the Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), said at least 13,886 girls in 21 districts were victims of child marriages between April and October of 2020.
Of the total, 48% were between 13 and 15 years old. MJF conducted the study in association with the UN Population Fund, UNICEF and Plan International Bangladesh. According to the UNICEF report, Bangladesh is home to 38 million child brides.
“Child marriage has become manifold during the COVID-19 pandemic and it continues to rise. And, only 20% of incidents of child marriage are reported or we usually come to know, while the rest of the incidents are conducted secretly, keeping officials in the dark,” Anna Minj, BRAC- CEP director, told Anadolu Agency.
“School closure for a long time, job loss in families and the overall economic condition of the country are among the causes behind the rise in child marriage in the pandemic. Besides, arranging marriage events in the pandemic is a comparatively low cost for families. And, low mobility of all concerned and officials also keep those incidents hidden in the pandemic,” she said.
A good number of Bangladeshi migrants returned home during the pandemic which prompted grooms and influenced guardians for a rash in child marriage, the BRAC official said, speaking from her field experience.
Minj suggested ensuring the return of female students to schools after they are reopened. “All schools have their own students’ data and information details. So, schools authorities should get in touch with venerable girl students on a regular basis to curb child marriage and school dropout.”
Tony Michael Gomes, director of technical programs at World Vision International, Bangladesh, echoed concerns about the rising trend of child marriage in Bangladesh.
“First we have to come out from the denial culture as the government does not admit that child marriage has seen a sharp rise in the pandemic. Until we accept the reality, we could not take the right measures and protect our girls from being victims of child marriage,” he said.
The government should act on making a baseline study to get the real picture of child marriage in Bangladesh, he said.
School closure has created insecurity among parents about their daughters, according to the experts.
The government decided to reopen on March 30 -- one year after closure. But the government said it will reconsider the decision if surging infections continue to rise.
Gomes emphasized law enforcement and the role of a kazi, a government-authorized person to register marriage, as there are allegations that kazis often are accomplices in those kinds of marriages by falsifying birthdays and simply not reporting marriages.
Both experts suggested financial packages and security measures for needy families in the pandemic so they can be convinced not to marry underage girls.
Education Minister Dipu Moni recently said the government has reached most targeted students even in the pandemic by though regular contact and inquiry.
The government initiated a digital birth registration process to avoid birth date manipulating and availing fake age certificates and marrying girls too early.
Mohiuddin Ahmed, Additional Secretary at the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, however, disagreed with data provided by rights groups and NGOs on the rise in child marriages.
“We also heard that child marriages and family violence have been on the rise in the pandemic. But, there is no government survey or study on child marriage,” he said
The government remained active to support female students and their families in the pandemic, even in-person school closing, he said.
“The government has increased 10% the food and financial support under the Vulnerable Group Development, one of the largest safety net programs assisted by the World Food Program. And, some other 23 projects are there to support girls and women and families to train for employment,” Ahmed told Anadolu Agency.
He said in such a pandemic, usually impacted children, girls, women and sometimes families, arrange to secretly marry their underage daughters. But contended that his group is on the alert to protect girls from being married before the government set age of 18.
“We have our field officers who are designed to monitor such incidents in villages and report to us thus we can take prompt and necessary measures. And we don’t have such information of a sharp rise in child marriage,” he said.
A recent report by UNICEF on March 8 said 10 million more girls are susceptible to child marriage because of the pandemic.
And, around 650 million girls and women were married in childhood with about half occurring in Bangladesh, Brazil, Ethiopia, India and Nigeria.