Child marriages go up in Bangladesh during COVID-19: Need to strike at root causes

It is high time that the child marriage rate - gone up during the pandemic - should be brought down drastically and for this, the Bangladesh government, NGOs, and society at large should work together to put an end to this menace, writes  Sarmin Akter for South Asia Monitor

Sarmin Akter Sep 11, 2020

COVID-19, an invisible virus, which has no vaccine and has shut down the whole world and changed almost everything. This situation was unimaginable, but the reality is it has happened to us, and to the world. We talk about changes that we are experiencing right now, but one change that should equally be focused on and is overlooked is child marriage - a truly global problem seen across cultures, ethnicities even across religion.

The Bangladesh government has initiated various National Action Plan to end child marriage in compliance with UNICEF-UNFPA global programme to accelerate action to end child marriage, South Asian Initiative to End Violence Against Children (SAIEVAC), and Kathmandu Call to Action to end child marriage in Asia, but the concern is when there is any catastrophe like war, disaster, refugee crisis, or pandemic generally the rates of child marriage go up. 

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has said that the pandemic has put many more girls at risk. It has been estimated that an additional 13 million girls could be forced into child marriage.  The agency also noted with concern that the coronavirus pandemic is reversing progress on ending child marriage and jeopardising the future of millions of girls.

Child marriages continue despite pandemic

Plan International, a development and humanitarian organisation conducted a study in Kurigram in Northern Bangladesh, stating that 40 child marriages took place on February, 29 on March, 19 in April, and 33 in May. About 73 separate incidents of child marriages occurred within two weeks span when a study was undertaken by Gender Justice and Diversity Division of BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee) in 11districts. The study showed how the rate of child marriages are going up during the pandemic. 

According to the study, a whopping 85 percent of marriages took place due to the guardian’s concern for their daughter’s future. School closure was responsible for 71 percent of child marriages, while 62 percent occurred due to the preference of potential grooms who lost their job overseas and returned to their villages. Low income or inability of guardians to maintain family facilitated 61 percent of these marriages.

Laws to abolish child marriages

However, Bangladesh ratified the Convention on the Rights of Child (CRC) and it requires a minimum age of marriage to be 18 years under Art.1. As per Article 24(3) of the convention, the government of Bangladesh is obliged to take ‘all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children.’ Article 19(1) of the convention stated, ‘States parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, … including sexual abuse.’  

As a Muslim majority country having cultural and traditional complexity, child marriage is frequently regarded as safe for young girls. A law (The Child Marriage Restraint Act,2017) was enacted in Bangladesh aiming to prevent children from getting married and an estimated 18 years as the age of marriage. On the other hand, Section 19 of this Act, allows marriages between minors by the court under special circumstances with the consent of the parents or guardians, for protecting the best interest of the child. However, the concept of special circumstances varies and what is special to someone might not be to another. Therefore, this section is subject to interpretation and not beyond question. 

There is no example of any special circumstances and no explanation as to what does the best interest of a child means under which underage marriages are permissible. There is a distinct possibility that the special provision can be misinterpreted and may contradict its very aim to prevent underage marriages. Underage marriages because of school closure, financial insecurity, or the presence of potential grooms are giving the wrong message to the society as there is a confusion, if all these factors mentioned above, fall under special circumstances. Thus, the philosophy of CRC has not been reflected in the aforesaid section.

The Bangladesh administration seems to fail in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and its socioeconomic impact on society. And these kinds of socioeconomic fallouts due to COVID could push back the government from achieving its goal. It is high time that the child marriage rate - gone up during the pandemic - should be brought down drastically and for this, the Bangladesh government, NGOs, and society at large should work together to put an end to this menace. The girls too should lead the way to end child marriages in their respective communities.

For now, the following measures should be taken as the COVID-19 pandemic still rages in the country to put a stop to child marriages in the country:

• The concerned authority should focus on the fact that the special circumstances clause is not being misinterpreted and promote alternative interpretations of religious texts to rebut the concept that early marriage is required or approved.

• Importance should be given to the efficiency and effectiveness of the birth and marriage registration systems, especially their accessibility in rural areas enforcing the legal age at marriage, and strengthening the penalties for non-compliance.

• Cash incentives might help and alternative working ways should be found for those who have lost their job. It should be done as economic scarcity caused by the pandemic is a likely cause for parents to marry off their daughters early.

• Government should continue scholarship for girls even during the pandemic. It is evident that teaching girls and making them aware of their rights can reduce the likelihood of child marriage by up to one third in Bangladesh.

• Accessibility of online classes for girls should be ascertained, hence the government should focus on how the internet can be assured at a feasible price.

• The monitoring mechanism of the anti-child marriage committee should be made digital as it is not possible to visit door to door during such a pandemic. In that case, complaints of child marriage can be made via hotline number, mail, or fax.

• Government should arrange awareness campaigns to make more people aware especially in villages and remote areas against child marriages. However, due to the pandemic, it can be virtually arranged. Media, in this instance, can help the most to influence public opinion.

Rooting out the root cause

If we want to end child marriage, we have to find out the root causes that perpetuate child marriage. If the main causes of early marriage are not addressed, then the law will not be enough to delay marriages among young girls. In this case, it is noteworthy that partnership between girls who suffer most, general people, influential persons in the society, civil society organisations, NGOs, and government and international organisation for children will help us to come one step closer in preventing child marriage in Bangladesh.

Nothing should be an obstacle to stop child marriage and in this regard Natalia Kanem, head of the United Nations' sexual and reproductive health agency, UNFPA, said, “We cannot let anything, not even the COVID pandemic, get in our way.”

(The writer is an LLM student at Jagannath University, Dhaka, Bangladesh. The views expressed are personal)

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