Violence against girls is endemic in Bangladesh. Patriarchal practices make it difficult for women to move freely in the public sphere. Of these practices, violence is perhaps the most visible.
It roams rampantly across our country as child marriage, domestic abuse, sexual harassment, rape, and dowry demands. Bangladesh ranks 108 of 109 countries in the Gender Empowerment Measure. Power structures and cultural norms make half our population vulnerable to gross human rights violations.
Laws like the Women and Children Repression Act 2000 (amended 2003), Acid Crime Control Act 2012, Dowry Prohibition Act 1980, Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929, and the Domestic Violence Prevention and Protection Act 2010 remain largely ineffective due to lack of capacity of enforcers and socially ingrained ideologies of patriarchy.
Child marriage is the worst sort of violence, an institutionalisation of paedophilic rape.
Not surprisingly, child brides are vulnerable to domestic abuse and early pregnancy, stripped of access to education, health, nutrition, independent choice, and liberty. As Bangladeshis, we should not accept this appalling situation.
A child marriage-free zone?
Many unions across the country have formally declared themselves child marriage-free zones, in a movement led by the upazila administration, facilitated by union parishads.
This is a collective commitment by the community and local government to stop child marriage.
It consists of individuals in institutional positions such as the UP chairman and members, imams, kazis (marriage registrars) to declare, in writing, that they are not aware of any child marriage being conducted in the union.
Unions that are child marriage-free should be recognised and rewarded, and those still barbarically allowing child marriage to take place should be penalised.
To achieve a child marriage-free zone, some critical steps are necessary: Building awareness, especially among youths; advocating online birth registration to ensure transparency of age; training marriage registrars on the adverse effects of child marriage; activation of marriage registars at the union level, among others.
In many unions, youth groups have been mobilised to act as “wedding busters” or watch-dogs who intervene on behalf of girl children when they hear of parental intentions to conduct child marriage.
As such, some INGOs have been providing support, such as PLAN, CARE, and BRAC, in certain areas. The government needs to play a stronger role in encouraging the mobilisation of child marriage-free zones.
The PMO has recognised this practice and has committed to scale up efforts to declare all unions as child marriage-free.
Digital mapping of child marriages, registration of vulnerable girls, and strong monitoring can be critical to our success.
We hope they will deliver quick results, and by 2021, all zones will be free of this heinous crime.
Parents need to be held accountable for child marriage. First, they need to be made aware of the harm of child marriage, and the laws against it, and then they need to be incentivised to follow the law.
We need to tackle the cultural practices and symbols that uphold patriarchy. Girls need to be given better opportunities after secondary school, to gain skills and jobs or assets for economic independence. Furthermore, safety of girls in cities and villages needs to be upheld.
A variety of stake-holders must be engaged for this collective effort to be sustainable. Union-level and upazila-level youth sensitisation is necessary. There are many youth groups to work with, who lack capacity and budget, but not passion.
The general public also needs sensitisation. Many child brides are married off to men living abroad.
Targeting the migrant labour population to discourage child marriage would be helpful.
Child marriage is the worst sort of violence, an institutionalisation of paedophilic rape. As Bangladeshis, we should not accept this appalling situation
Recently, gender-based violence has been included as a chapter in secondary school curriculum.
This is a positive step forward, but needs to be reinforced with more training and budget.
Parent-teacher associations are generally inactive in rural schools. These associations should be activated to protect the interest of young girls.
Teachers can play a more effective role in dismantling patriarchal norms if trained and mobilised to do so.
Regrettably, the number of women teachers is less than 30%. Social media and digital means of reaching youths to sensitise them on issues of gender-based violence may be effective. School-focused interventions are currently insufficient.
The chairmen of union parishads should be trained to enforce child marriage prevention. Performance indicators should be linked to this objective.
Women union members also need more capacity to serve the girls in their areas.
With training, they may play a rigorous role in the communities as watch-dogs.
Unions with the lowest rate of child marriage should receive recognition and reward.
Union Women Affairs Officers need more training to operate as front-line, gender-based violence prevention activists in their community and they should have the administrative power to stop child marriage.
Acting as watch-dogs, they may monitor and report incidents of violence in their unions.
They may support the union parishad’s standing committee for the resolution of family conflict and welfare of women and children.
Marriage registars are the vanguards in combating domestic violence and child marriage. Imams shape the social attitudes towards discrimination. Local kazis and religious leaders are usually involved in facilitating marriages.
They require training on the causes and consequences of illegal marriage and their roles in combating domestic violence and child marriage.
Birth certificates should be mandatory for conducting a marriage and marriage registration.
The presence of a notary public should not be a legal basis for marriage. The UNO should be immediately advised if a child marriage is planned in their jurisdiction.
Mosque and temple committee members also need to be trained on child marriage, domestic violence, and GBV issues.
Vocational training institutes have committed to 20% gender inclusion but this needs to be supported by residential facilities and greater effort to recruit women.
Social security programs targeting girl children and adolescent girls need to be designed and delivered at scale to mitigate against the risk and vulnerability of child marriage.
Companies in both formal and informal sectors should challenge traditions and employ more women in non-traditional roles -- we want to see more women employed in public transport, for example.
More female police and lawyers and judges are needed. These are all steps that must be taken, quickly, if we want to achieve a fully inclusive country that doesn’t prey upon its weakest members, girl children.
Farhana Afroz is a development worker, currently working as Deputy Chief of Party for USAID’s Protecting Human Rights Program, Plan International Bangladesh. Shazia Omar is a poverty activist, yogini, and author.