Parents are using the pandemic as an opportunity to marry off their underage daughters
The lack of communication inside communities and information failing to reach NGOs and welfare organizations during the Covid-19 pandemic has given a lot of parents free reign to get their young children married off in secrecy.
A 14-year-old girl defied all the labels life wanted to give her - child bride, school dropout, victim. She fled when she overheard her parents talking about marrying her off with one of her cousins.
She put an end to it with the help of a local NGO, government officials and influential political leaders.
However, a year later, her family took her to Dhaka in March and forced her into early marriage. She could not reach out to anyone because her family did not let anyone in their community know about their visit to Dhaka.
Many children in Bangladesh are now at risk of becoming a victim of child marriage because the pandemic is disrupting the collaborative effort of the community, NGOs, and the government to prevent child marriage.
Per year, approximately 12 million girls around the world are married off before the age of 18 - nearly one girl every three seconds.
A United Nations report made the prediction that the pandemic could lead to an additional 13 million child marriages over the next decade.
Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), a human rights organization conducted a telephonic survey in May in 53 districts which found that a total of 170 child marriages took place while 233 child marriages were stopped by the MJF partner organizations and local leaders.
A total of 139 girls and 13 boys became victims of child marriage.
However, the survey might not show the real picture of the child marriage situation in Bangladesh as many cases remained unreported because of the pandemic.
At a recent webinar, MJF Executive Director Shaheen Anam warned that the children who were saved from child marriage in May, might become a victim of early marriage again.
Hurdles faced by the NGOs and welfare organizations
Md Faridul Alam, project coordinator of Engaging Communities and Authorities to Tackle Oppression (ECATTO) Project of a Kishoreganj based organization People's Oriented Program Implementation (POPI) that works for preventing child marriage in Kishoreganj, pointed out a few factors that are making their job difficult in this pandemic.
The pandemic has made it easier for the parents to marry off their underage daughters in secrecy since most of the communities across the country are maintaining social distancing. Many parents are marrying off their underage daughters without inviting anyone from their community or even telling them and therefore nobody from the community is able to report the marriages.
“We can usually stop child marriages with government intervention when we get information. Since this pandemic has disrupted our regular flow of work, it has become difficult for us to get the information,” he told the correspondent.
He added: “When parents leave with their daughter for another place to marry her off, many of them say they lost their livelihood in this pandemic and now they need to move to another place for a better future. People in their community believe it because deepening poverty is also a reality in this pandemic.”
The General Secretary of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad Maleka Banu told Dhaka Tribune that women and girls are always more vulnerable in times of crisis and this pandemic is not any different than other disasters or conflicts.
“The authorities are not really sitting back when it comes to controlling Covid-19 spread. Then, why don’t they pay attention toward stopping child marriage?” she questioned.
Since the schools have been shut down since March to curb the spread of Covid-19, girls have become more vulnerable in this context. Experts fear a significant number of female students might never come back to school even after reopening.
If these girls can continue their studies without any disruption and can have access to remote learning, they might not drop out from school and become a victim of child marriage, said Maleka.
Maleka said that massive campaigns should be run to prevent child marriages and policymakers should come up with doable strategies keeping this unique Covid-19 situation in mind.