Between January and August of 2022, as many as 2,301 girls fell victim to child marriage in 28 districts of Bangladesh. This means, on an average, 288 girls under 18 years of age were married off per month in those districts alone out of 64 districts in Bangladesh (National Girl Child Advocacy Forum).
By the same token, the number of calls to a hotline related to child marriage increased by 22 percent within just the first month of the pandemic. Despite the harsh punishments prescribed in the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017 which prohibits marriage of girls below the age of 18 and boys below the age of 21, unfortunately, the rate of early and child marriages amplified substantially in the last few years. This poses a particular challenge for Bangladesh, as the country had planned to completely eliminate child marriages by 2041.
One of the biggest adverse impacts of child and early marriages is the related trend of premature birth. In Asia, the rate is highest in Bangladesh, with 74 out of 1000 teenage girls giving premature births (UNFPA, 2023).
Shamima Nahar (pseudonym) was a class five student living in Shimulpur, Jaldhaka Upazila, Nilphamari. Her father promised her a family vacation to her own Nanabari (Grandfather’s home), which was actually a set up for getting Shamima married off. She had little idea about it until the wedding day, luckily she escaped the marriage by calling the “Asmani Jubo Nari Foundation”, an organisation working to prevent early marriages. They immediately called the police and administrative officials in order to stop the illegal practice. Her family was under custody for a few days and her husband flew from the place to avoid the punishment of marrying a minor.
In Bangladesh, police and local officials are quite proactive when it comes to stopping child marriages. However, not all child/early marriages get reported to the authorities. Therefore, the more pertinent questions are: What’s behind the recent rise of child marriages and what can be done to put an end to the trend?
During COVID-19, many families suffered economically. Unsurprisingly, the poorest felt the brunt of such measures as lockdowns etc. To reduce their financial burdens, many parents started marrying off their young girls as they were unwilling to lose “too good spousal candidates” for their female children. Uncertainties regarding future economic situations exacerbated their fears.
Early marriages increased alarmingly when educational institutions started shutting down. The girls used to spend around 6 hours at their school and were busy with academics. So the parents did not feel the pressure of “my daughter has grown up enough for marriage”. However, during Covid, girls spent all of their time at home so the constant societal pressure of marriage played a substantial role.
In some cases, for multiple children at home, parents decided to take this step for one of their girls in Covid. On the other hand, the income source significantly deteriorated so the cost of marriage in Covid was inevitably low as the parents of the girl could have arranged their marriage with an intimate programme. Families of the grooms also had a reciprocal interest to have weddings during the pandemic, as the costs of the events and dower demands both were less.
Local and national religious fundamentalists also took the opportunity to push through their conservative agenda of getting girls married early. They took advantage of the fact that both government and non-government organisations were preoccupied with more urgent tasks during the pandemic. Thus, presumably this also fed into the trend of rising early marriages.
Measures Taken by the Government
- The Government of Bangladesh (GoB) passed the stringent “Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017” according to which the minimum age of marriage for girls is 18 years. Under the act, anyone who arranges, facilitates or marries a girl under 18 can be imprisoned for up to 18 years.
- The Ministry of Women and Children Affairs and UNICEF jointly launched the “National Action Plan to End Child Marriage 2018-2030” to end the marriage of girls below 15 and to completely eliminate child marriage by 2041.
- The Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act in 2010 provides legal protection and support for victims of domestic violence, including child brides.
- The GoB in collaboration with national and international actors have launched several awareness campaigns to educate people about the negative implications of child marriage on women. For instance, under the ‘Enabling Environment for Child Rights’ Programme of the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs and UNICEF, the government launched the National Multimedia Campaign for Ending Child Marriage in 2017. The campaign declares child marriage as unacceptable because it harmful, illegal and outdated.
- The “National Helpline Center for Violence against Women and Children” under the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs is running a helpline, ‘109’ since 2012 to get complaints and reports of child marriage and take immediate action. From 2012 to 2021, around 9,388 calls were made in the helpline seeking help to stop an child marriage, out of which 8,755 cases (around 93%) of child marriage were successfully prevented by the government.
To facilitate the prevention of child marriage, tracking and preserving all the marriage and divorce registration data can be pivotal. The ICT Division of GoB is working to launch an online portal, “Bandhan” to make online marriage and divorce registration systems accessible to everyone.
- Mobile courts are playing a critical role in stopping child marriage in Bangladesh. The mobile courts have made the delivery of justice in cases of child marriage speedy and efficient.
- The “Female Secondary Stipend and Assistance Program ” (FSSAP) in Bangladesh, a tuition and stipend subsidy program of GoB & Asian Development Bank (ADB) increased female participation in education and significantly decreased child marriages. Many progressive policies and initiatives of GoB to increase female literacy have been instrumental in combating child marriage.
Further Actions to Bolster Anti Child-Marriage Regime
The following further legal, administrative, policy, and other measures can be considered for tackling the recent trend of rising child marriages:
- Section 19 of the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017 can be weaponized to approve marriages of female children under 18. Section 19 allows early marriages if parental consent and court’s approval are taken. This section may need further revision to stop it from opening a pandora’s box. It is also arguable that parents could use this provision in court, when justifying child marriages in extraordinary situations like the pandemic.
- Economic stability for girls who are studying in school-colleges should be a top priority. Often the parental support goes to child marriages due to economic instability and girls not having the adequate income to backup their parents. Shirin Asa runs Asmani Jubo Nari Foundation, an organisation which works to stop early marriages and empower girls through working in groups. She herself escaped early marriage and is studying at a university now. “It happened as I had an alternative source of income. My parents would not have given me the opportunity to work for other girls as well as for myself if I were not contributing to my family.” Shirin said it proudly.
- The government can extend its scheme of making direct money transfers to parents if they send them to school-colleges. This can be further bolstered by investing in long-term potential of girls. For instancer, by arranging skill development programs through collaborating with locals and NGOs. Such an investment would make the girls more employable and thereby increase their financial independence potential
- A report of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) says the average hourly wage among males in the sample is 17.2 taka, compared with 14.2 taka per hour for women, representing 1 percent higher hourly wages for men. Hence even though we see girls are achieving outstanding academics results, steps have to taken for addressing wage gap and gender discrimination in employment.
- The government needs to take stricter action to monitor, and where appropriate, penalise religious fundamentalists who influence people to act illegally in promoting child marriages by misusing religious doctrine, a problem morte acute in the rural parts. In pushing a counter-narrative, local religious leaders can be utilised. For instance, preachers and mosque officials played in bringing down the fertility rate in Bangladesh by not opposing, and in some instances promoting, use of family planning measures.
- Necessary measures should be taken so that poor people can access legal remedies and resources easily in terms of child marriage complaint.
- The usage of mobile phones and social media can’t be restricted but an extensive counselling towards making the girls empowered with their own ambitions should be taken into account. The communication gap between the parents, teachers has to be lessened immediately by breaking the stigmas regarding “puberty emotions are a taboo topic to avoid”. It is to be remembered that a talk session with teenagers is always the easiest way out rather than threatening them.
- Engaging the local youths towards marrying a self independent girl for both of their successful careers can bring a change immediately. This may be a long term plan but changes will be visible within the upcoming generation.
Intensifying campaigns, especially using social media and other modern tools like radio and TV, can also shed greater light on rising child marriages and the consequences of such marriages.
About the Author
AR Tahseen Jahan is a Research Associate at The Confluence and a student of Development Studies at the University of Dhaka. She is also serving as an Editor at Dhaka University Law and Politics Review.