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OP-ED: Ending child marriage can help Bangladesh recover from Covid-19

  • Published at 12:36 pm April 9th, 2021
girl children
Photo: BIGSTOCK

Child marriage is not only a gross violation of the rights of children, it hurts families, communities, and the nation

Last month, the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, DC published a new report on how the US can address the global problem of child marriage. Child marriage not only harms the children involved, but also impedes the country’s growth and development. These types of marriages violate children’s human rights, decrease economic potential, and induce multi-generational poverty, as children are prematurely forced into adulthood. 

An understanding of how child marriage is connected to GDP rates, development, and worrisome demographic trends around the world is required to give Bangladeshi policy-makers the necessary context and urgency to establish and enact child marriage laws that protect children.

Bangladesh ranks among the top 10 countries in the world with the highest levels of child marriage -- 51% of Bangladeshi women aged 20-24 were married before their 18th birthday. Though Bangladesh is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a profoundly negative impact on the country. In the last year, Bangladesh lost many of its hard-won gains in its fight against poverty and saw its GDP growth slump. It remains to be seen what the long-term implications of the pandemic will be on Bangladesh’s economy, but one way it can continue its progress towards upper-middle income status is through eliminating child marriage.

Child marriage is a human rights violation and a form of gender-based violence. It disrupts normal growth patterns by moving children directly into adulthood before they are ready. Each day, tens of thousands of girls around the world are married before they are physically or emotionally ready to become wives and mothers. Child brides have a greater risk of experiencing intimate partner violence, living in poverty, having poor health outcomes, having more children and having children at earlier ages, and dropping out of school than their peers who marry at a later age. 

Child marriage disempowers girls and young women and limits their access to many fundamental human rights, including rights to education, basic health, and the right to live free from exploitation and violence. Child marriage not only affects the young brides and grooms, but then also impacts their children, families, and communities, as those involved are impeded from achieving their full personal, economic, and social potential.

Beyond the obvious human costs of child marriage, these types of unions cost money and result in an intergenerational transmission of poverty and lost earnings as children are forced to marry instead of furthering their education, gaining employment, and participating meaningfully in the market and in society. A study published in the Berkeley Economic Review found that child marriage costs economies at least 1.7% of their GDP and increases total fertility of women by 17%, which hurts developing countries struggling with high population growth. Ending child marriage could also reduce a country’s dependence on overseas development assistance and generate billions of dollars in annual benefits. 

It could also save lives. The leading cause of death of girls aged 15 to 19 is complications from pregnancy and childbirth. Girls under the age of 15 are five times more likely to die due to such complications. However, if girls were not forcibly married and were allowed to continue their education, the world would reap the benefits -- trillions of dollars in benefits, to be exact. 

According to the World Bank, if every girl in the world stayed in school for 12 years of quality education, lifetime earnings for women could then grow by $15 trillion to $30 trillion in aggregate. In places where child marriage is pervasive, a shift in mindset from seeing girls as a financial burden to seeing girls as potentially growing up to be wage earners would be beneficial not only to victims but also to their communities and their countries at large. 

Among other geopolitical consequences, studies show that intimate partner violence -- which is more likely to happen to child brides than to their peers who marry later -- can be a predictor for violent civil unrest and international conflict. In her 2012 book Sex and World Peace, Dr Valerie M Hudson and her colleagues found a “statistically significant relationship between the physical security of women and the overall peacefulness of states.” Child marriage, and gender-based violence as a whole, is intimately connected to greater, systemic societal issues. 

The coronavirus pandemic has facilitated the largest surge in global child marriage rates in the past 25 years, according to a study by Save the Children. The organization estimated that nearly half a million more girls were at risk of child marriage in 2020 and a further 1 million are expected to become pregnant due to the pandemic. The report found that between 2020 and 2030, 13 million more children could be married than previously predicted, which will lead to an increase in maternal mortality, adolescent pregnancies, population growth, and psychological harm to child victims. 

Child marriage impedes progress and development in countries around the world. Bangladesh doesn’t have to be one of them. With the right policies and proper action, Bangladesh can expedite its economic recovery from Covid-19 by protecting its children while also promoting, and benefiting from, the potential and talent of its girls. 

Emily Prey is a Senior Analyst for Special Initiatives at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy. Her areas of research include child marriage, human trafficking, and genocide. Twitter: @eepreylove.

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