Loss of income of parents and school closures amid the pandemic are the main reasons behind the increase in child marriages
Bangladesh witnessed a 13% increase in child marriages during the Covid-19 pandemic last year as the deadly virus massively affected societies and economies, pushing many into extreme poverty.
Child marriage has always been a huge obstacle to development for countries like Bangladesh, and the virus appeared to have negative effect on efforts to combat it.
The gender justice and diversity department of Brac, the world’s largest NGO, found that child marriage increased by 13% when it conducted a survey to access the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on women and adolescents in 11 districts across the country last year.
This is the highest rate of child marriage in Bangladesh in the last 25 years. The country had been becoming a role model in various social advancement indexes, and had reduced child marriage to a great extent.
The survey found that the loss of income of parents and school closures amid the pandemic are the main reasons behind the increase in child marriages.
According to various non-governmental organizations, child marriage increased at an alarming rate in the months May, June, July, August, and September. The government, through the local administration, law enforcement agencies, and with help of NGOs, has been working hard to prevent child marriages across the country.
Pabna Sujanagar Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) Raushan Ali saved a 15-year-old girl in the upazila when her family forcibly wanted to marry her off to a man from neighbouring upazila.
Ali arrived at the house with police and was able to arrest the would-be groom. The mobile court later sentenced him to seven days in jail.
In Dharmapur area of Gaibandha district, a 14-year-old schoolgirl was saved from early marriage by the local administration as they took immediate action to stop the marriage after receiving a call from neighbours on the Child Helpline 1098.
Although the government was able to stop a few such child marriages, others evaded the eyes of the local administration and law enforcement agencies.
Child marriage and violence against women and children during the pandemic received top priority at a meeting of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs last October.
According to Women and Children Affairs ministry’s data, child marriage has increased in Kurigram, Natore, Jessore, Kushtia, Narsingdi and Jhalokati districts.
As per the official data, 231 child marriages occurred across the country in the first three months (March to June) of the lockdown last year, while the highest number of 61 child marriages took place in the northern district of Kurigram.
The second highest number of child marriages, 23, took place in Natore district followed by 15 each in Jessore and Kushtia.
Besides, 10 child marriages have taken place in Jhalokati, eight each in Naogaon, Chapainawabganj and Narsingdi, seven in Gaibandha and Cox’s Bazar, six each in Nilphamari and Ladhipur, and five each in Chittagong and Rajshahi.
Shaheen Anam, executive director of Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), said 59% of girls in the country are married before the age of 18, while 22% are married before their 15th birthday.
Explaining why child marriage has increased during the pandemic, Anam said all educational institutions in the country remained closed to prevent the spread of the virus and many people also lost their jobs. Many parents grew worried about keeping their children with them because of social security concerns.
The situation prompted the parents to arrange marriages for their teenage daughters.
Chowdhury Mohiman, manager of the Child Helpline 1098, run in collaboration with UNICEF, said the reported cases of child marriages received by the child helpline have gone up alarmingly during the pandemic period.
In April last year, he said, the Child Helpline received 450 phone calls related to child marriage. “Going by the number of pleas received from adolescent girls to stop child marriages, we see a trend of increase in attempted child marriages in recent times as opposed to pre-pandemic days. Now, we are getting more than 150 such calls in a month,” he added.
According to Save the Children’s Global Report, about 200,000 girls in South Asia were at risk of new child marriages in 2020, while an additional 2.5 million girls fall victim to child marriage by 2025.