With schools closed and families feeling the pinch of inflation and lost income, UNICEF estimates that the pandemic has put an additional 10 million girls at risk of early marriage. Shaheen Anam of the Manusher Jonno Foundation, a Bangladeshi organization that has supported over 200 human rights and civil society groups in the last 20 years, explains why COVID-19 has led to a rise in child marriage in Bangladesh, and how to ensure child brides get a second chance at education and independence.
Shorolika Parveen from Kurigram in northern Bangladesh was a star football player who dreamed of playing on the national football team. She even received a best player award from the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina. However, aged 16, the 9th grader became a victim of child marriage during the pandemic, as did seven other footballers in her class. Now, instead of planning the next pass or goal on the football field they are wives, responsible for managing households. But did their dreams and aspirations have to end with early marriage?
Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 51% of girls married before they are 18. The present commitment of the government is to eliminate marriage below 16 years by 2024 and eradicate child marriage by 2041. The Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017 set the minimum age of marriage for men at 21 years and for women at 18. In theory, offenders can face five years in jail, but there are no known cases of anyone having been punished for enabling or forcing children to marry. The Act was amended to include a clause that allows marriages for girls under 18 in “Special Cases” or for “the greater good of the adolescent”. This special provision was vehemently opposed by child rights and women’s rights organizations, but it remains, giving parents and marriage registrars an excuse to conduct such illegal marriages.
Women and child rights activists found it difficult to prevent child marriage even before the COVID-19 pandemic: in a context of widespread sexual harassment of young women and girls, families believe the earlier a girl is married the better it is for the reputation of the family; in addition, demands for dowry are lower for younger brides. However, a key factor is that those responsible for preventing it are never held to account for failing in their duties. Given the economic crisis families faced once the pandemic struck, along with school closures and insecurity about the future, young girls became the victim of illegal child marriages in large numbers. Studies conducted by the Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) in the one-third of the country’s districts in which MJF partners work uncovered almost 14,000 illegal child marriages in the first six months of the pandemic alone.
In spite of such evidence, no action was taken to reverse the trend. Saving lives, providing relief to those most affected, and getting the economy back on track were deemed more important than preventing child marriage. When schools reopened in September 2021 after 18 months of closure, reports came in from across Bangladesh of classrooms without girls in the 9th and 10th grades, most of them victims of child marriage. In Rajshahi alone, 6,500 girls became victims of child marriage, while Tangail reported that 7,000 secondary school students did not return to school. These figures are believed to be the tip of the iceberg, as no national figures are available.
The negative impacts of child marriage on the lives of young girls are well-known: it strips them of their personal autonomy, forcing them into a physical and social relationship they are not prepared for. There are countless stories of the horrors young girls face when forced to marry older men. Let us not forget the 14 year old girl from Tangail who died of genital bleeding last year, a month after she was married to a much older man. Marital rape is not recognized by the law, and statutory rape only applies if the victim is below 13 years of age. There is no effective punishment for such abuse, torture and sometimes even murder, all of which are hidden under the overall sanction of “marriage”.
Given this situation what can we do? Does a young girl have to forego all her dreams and ambitions just because she is married – and that even forcefully or illegally? Does she cease to be a child with hopes to fly, to dream and express herself? The answer should be an emphatic NO! It is wrong to abandon them, to treat them as married women and move on, or at best to try and prevent further early marriage. We must make a conscious decision to bring those girls back to school, give them a chance of following their dreams and living an independent life.
There are examples of such positive practices. One of MJF’s partner NGOs in Dinajpur district, Uddog, has successfully encouraged over 50 child brides to return to school, helping them negotiate with their husbands and in-laws, with the cooperation of local authorities and teachers. An important policy decision has to be taken to abandon the longstanding rule by which girls lose their secondary school stipends after marriage, to encourage them to stay on or return. Most important of all, existing institutions such as child marriage prevention committees must be activated, and relevant officials held accountable for neglecting their duties.
The larger question is what is the worth of a girl in our society? Is she loved and recognized for the joy and care she gives to the family or is she a burden to be sent away at the first opportunity? It is a matter of national shame that in spite of the Honorable Prime Minister’s personal commitment to girls’ education we now find classrooms empty of adolescent girls.
We urge the authorities to take some bold decisions to reject practices that condemn young girls to illegal early marriage. We need to work in partnerships with women’s rights organizations, civil society, teachers, local politicians and authorities, and families to bring our girls, married or otherwise back to school. Development partners can do more to help prevent early marriage by making girls’ education their priority. The COVID victims of child marriage deserve accountability, and a second chance.