SDG target to end child marriage by 2030, national target to end child marriage by 2041 not achievable with current trend
The prolonged closure of schools coupled with Covid-triggered economic hardship is increasing the number of child marriages in Bangladesh, experts have said.
The efforts of government and non-government bodies reduced the child marriage rate considerably over the past decade, but the widespread belief that marrying off daughters will ease the economic burden of Covid-19 now threatens to undo all the work, they added.
Early or forced marriage is a violation of children’s human rights. This harmful practice forces them out of education and into a life with increased risk of violence, sexual abuse, health problems and premature death.
The mindset of treating daughters as a burden
Poverty and economic hardship are considered to be the leading causes of child marriage, but female children of many well-off families are also married off before they turn 18.
Poor parents falsely believe that girls would be unable to find employment and only boys would be able to support the family. On the other hand, wealthier families tend to hold a twisted belief that they are protecting a girl’s chastity by ensuring that they are married off as soon as possible, according to Unicef.
“A major barrier to stopping child marriage is that parents feel they are protecting their children from sexual violence by marrying them off at the onset of puberty,” said the United Nations agency, referring to a recent research report.
A 13-year-old girl was married off six months ago as her parents “could not bear her cost of living.”
Her mother said the father has been unable to work due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and they were finding it difficult to support all five of their children.
“Now, there is one less mouth to feed,” she told Dhaka Tribune.
Another girl, who is just 16 years old, is going to be married off soon for a different reason.
"My daughter will not be a doctor or engineer. Today or tomorrow, she has to get married. So, why not now? We have seen several qualified suitors who will not be available if her age increases,” said the mother.
The parents would have waited two more years if their daughter’s college had been open. They do not wish to see their daughter sitting idly at home.
Many other young girls are facing similar situations, with school closures leading their parents to expedite their marriages.
Although it is illegal to get children married before they turn 18, a special provision (under Section 19 of Child Marriage Restraint Act, 2017) allows marriage below 18 years.
Child marriage in Bangladesh
A survey by Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), titled “Rapid Analysis of Child Marriage Situation during Covid-19 in Bangladesh,” found that at least 13,886 child marriages were held in 21 districts of Bangladesh between April and October 2020.
The highest 1,512 child marriages took place in Barguna.
In 78% of the cases, parents were the initiators of the marriage with their financial insolvency cited as the key factor. About 50% of these girls are 16-17 years old, 48% 13-15 years old, and 2% are 10-12 years old, MJF said in a report.
Rabea Munni, project co-coordinator of a Barguna-based NGO named Jago Nari, painted a grim picture of child marriage.
“We have been able to stop 283 child marriage attempts in only three unions of Taltola upazila in one year since July 2020, either with the help of local administration or counselling,” she told Dhaka Tribune, regretting that 121 child marriages took place in the unions despite their efforts.
UNO of Taltoli Upazila Md Kawsar Hossain said there was an increasing trend of child marriages in the areas near the coast. “Preventing the practice is difficult as there are many areas that are inaccessible to the local administration.”
The MJF study found that the top four reasons for child marriage were poverty (29.9%), girls being out of school (18.8%), traditional norms around husband security (11.7%), and family member’s loss of job or earnings directly related to Covid-19 (11.3%).
Bangladesh ranked among the 10 countries of the world with the highest levels of child marriage in 2020, according to a Unicef report.
It revealed that Bangladesh had a 51% child marriage rate, with five in 10 child brides giving birth before turning 18, and eight in 10 before turning 20.
What do the experts say?
Experts suggest that the government take immediate steps, such as giving aid and arranging awareness-raising programs, as the child marriage rate has increased significantly during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Selina Ahmed, program head (gender justice and diversity) at Brac, said that field-level monitoring mechanisms to prevent child marriage had stalled due to lockdowns and social distancing measures since the coronavirus arrived in March last year.
She identified the prolonged closure of schools and parents’ financial insolvency as the key factors behind the rise in child marriage incidents, as many rural parents still consider their daughters a burden and marriage as the ultimate solution.
Abdullah Al Mamun, director of child rights governance and child protection at Save the Children in Bangladesh, described the reasons cited by parents as “typical excuses.”
“The ultimate target of the rural parents is to marry off their daughters. Had the schools remained open, they would have waited just a year as they think girls are burdens,” he argued.
Educationist Rasheda K Chowdhury said: "I can assume that increased poverty is the main reason. In the last few years, our economic condition was changing, and the child marriage rate was decreasing. But the work is being lost.”