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Post-economic burden of Covid pandemic continues to drive child marriage

  • Published at 10:37 pm March 2nd, 2021
Bangladesh is home to 38 million child brides, including all, old and new brides, who got married
Bangladesh is home to 38 million child brides, including all, old and new brides, who got married off at an early age Dhaka Tribune

Study finds significant increase in child marriage despite majority of incidents going unreported

A little over a year ago, 16-year-old Samira was on the verge of fulfilling her dreams of becoming a football player by earning a place in the Jamalpur district girls’ team. However, the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting lockdowns threw a spanner in her plans in more ways than one.

Not only did the pandemic lead to an indefinite suspension of sporting and academic activities, but it also deprived Samira’s brother and father of their means of income. Unable to work the land or at the market, her family grew desperate and decided they could not afford to have her follow her dreams.

The better option would be to marry her off without a dowry, Samira’s father and brother reasoned. However, the sixth grader reached out for help and managed to prevent herself from getting trapped in child marriage.

“I did not have the mindset to get married and start a family. I am not ready for that phase of my life. When my parents told me about my marriage, I was heartbroken and wondered if I was a burden to them,” Samira said.

Her mother told Dhaka Tribune: “We don’t know what to do. Since she was unable to continue her studies, we were thinking of marrying her off.”

Not everyone was lucky enough to avoid early marriages like Samira.

A neighbour of the family who was forcibly married as a teenager said: “Parents are always trying to get rid of us. When coronavirus lockdowns were being enforced, elderly people were all advising parents to marry off their daughters.”

Another child marriage victim, a 10th grader, said she was forced marry with almost no notice or opportunity to contact the authorities, who could have stopped it.

MJF: Child marriage rose by 44% in 2020

According to data from Bangladeshi newspapers collected by Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), incidents of child marriage rose by 44% to 101 in 2020, as compared to 70 in 2019.

The actual number of child marriages and abuse in the country is much higher as it is significantly under-reported, according to MJF Program Coordinator Rafeza Shaheen.

“When our partner organization worked at the slums, villages, unions or wards, they found many incidents that were mutually settled in the localities and some incidents where families were barred from coming forward and speaking up. We could not include such incidents in our evidence based report, but they were numerous,” she added.

Bangladesh ranks fourth in the world in terms of child marriage.

According to the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2019, conducted by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics and Unicef, a total 19.8% of women currently aged 15-49 were married before they turned 15.

999 received 45% more calls over child marriage in 2020

The National Emergency Service hotline 999 received 45% more calls to prevent child marriage in 2020 than in 2019.

The number of calls increased in frequency following the closures of educational institutions to contain Covid-19, said officials of the National Emergency Service.

Members of Polli Shomaj, the women-led community empowerment program of Brac, prevented 493 child marriages and reported 97 cases of child marriage from January till October 2019. In 2020, they prevented 849 child marriages and reported 146 cases of child marriage over the same period.

Causes and prevention

Selina Ahmed, program head (gender justice and diversity) at BRAC, said child marriage had been on the rise due to a decrease in the income of families, inadequate social security and school closures, forcing children to stay home for long periods.

A lack of monitoring by government and non-government organizations was also to blame for the increase, experts said.

Abdullah Al Mamun, director (child rights governance and child protection) at Save the Children, said the organisation was emphasizing social security, awareness and career-oriented education for girls to reduce child marriage.

“The state has so far failed to provide social safety for girls and the Covid-19 situation has facilitated irregularities. Awareness of the issue needs to be raised among all members of society,” he added, mentioning that financial crises did not justify child marriage.

Muhibuzzaman, joint secretary of the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, said: “Only proper awareness can prevent the curse of child marriage. Irregularities such as child marriage have increased as field level workers have not been able to stay in the field during the Covid-19 crisis.

“Now that the situation is returning to normal, we will start awareness programs again. We are taking necessary measures in every district out of fear that many girls will drop out instead of re-joining schools after they reopen. We have taken steps to provide financial incentives to them once schools reopen,” he added.

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