Up to 70% of girls in grade 9 and 10 in many schools are yet to return to classes
Many girls across the country long to rejoin schools alongside other children but are unable to do so as they were married off during the 18-month-long pandemic-induced school closures.
Experts fear that most of these girls will never be allowed to continue their education.
One such child bride is a 15-year-old girl at Gilatola High School in Khulna city. She was given away in marriage three months ago, but she is still living with her parents.
Despite her marriage, the child is desperate to continue her studies.
Her mother Fatema Begum, who herself was married off at the age of 13, told Dhaka Tribune that she knew that child marriage was illegal, but the family had no other option.
“My husband is still struggling to make ends meet as the lockdowns and Covid-19 crisis have had an adverse impact on our livelihoods. We were also worried about our daughter’s safety, as this place is not safe for young girls like her,” she told Dhaka Tribune.
The woman said her daughter would be sent to her in-laws' home this December. The child does not know, however, if she will be able to continue going to school once she moves there.
A study by Manusher Jonno Foundation, titled “Rapid Analysis of Child Marriage Situation during Covid-19,” found that at least 13,886 child marriages took place in 21 districts during the Covid-19 induced lockdown last year.
The study noted that the actual number of child marriages might be much higher, as many such marriages were never reported.
Zahangeer Alam, principal of Comilla Adarsha Rajapur Faizunnesa Girls High School, told Dhaka Tribune that roughly 70% of girls in grade 9 and 10 at the school were yet to return to classes.
“We tried to contact their parents, but most of them said the girls had gone to their village homes. I fear many of them have been married off,” he said.
Zahangir Kabir, deputy director of the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education in Sylhet, told Dhaka Tribune the true dropout rate might be determined in October.
In Satkhira, more than 50 child marriages took place in the last year and a half, all of them involving students of Alipur Adarsha Maddhomik Balika Biddyaloy.
According to the school, the 50 students who were victims of child marriage included 14 who were in grade 10, seven in grade 9, 11 in grade 8, and 18 who were Secondary School Certificate (SSC) candidates. The girls were aged 14-18.
Md Abdul Latif, headmaster of the school, said 32 students at the school were married in 2020. Of the 68 SSC candidates, 21 did not submit registration forms.
AKM Shafiul Azam, deputy director of the Satkhira district Women Affairs office, said the office prevented 22 child marriages from taking place in August alone. Among them, 15 were in Tala and seven in Sadar upazila.
From the beginning of the pandemic till last month, 149 child marriages had been prevented, he said.
Bangladesh Mahila Parishad General Secretary Maleka Begum told Dhaka Tribune the fears of women and child rights campaigners over the last year and a half were becoming a reality.
“Girls who are married off before finishing school rarely return to classes. Needless to say, these child brides [who were married during the pandemic] are unlikely to be allowed to go back to school,” she said.
Maleka Begum also urged teachers and principals to call parents and help them understand the adverse impacts of child marriage.
“Child marriage is a social problem, and it is also a punishable offence. If the families and in-laws of a child bride are made aware of the consequences of marrying off a child, they might send the child bride to school,” she told this correspondent.