According to a telesurvey report conducted by Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), child marriage has sharply increased. MJF found 462 girls being married off in June, and 170 girls getting married in May. With families becoming poorer due to job losses and schools being closed, push factors have driven up the number of child marriages and this will likely continue if no interventions are made.
Poverty is a major driver of child marriage, but other factors include the illegal but widespread practice of giving dowry (where the younger the bride, the less will be the burden of dowry on the girl’s family), and the general failure of the state to provide security to girls and women. Despite education being free till secondary school, girls are forced into marriage due to these factors. Growing awareness of the ills of child marriage have inspired organisations, public officials and law enforcers to stop child marriages, but these efforts have been too few and far between to make a major impact.
According to Unicef, Bangladesh has the fourth highest rate of child marriage in the world. This is hardly in line with our Sustainable Development Goals, which includes eliminating child, early and forced marriage by 2030. We are a signatory of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and have our own Child Marriage Restraint Act that stipulates 18 years to be the minimum age of marriage for a girl. But the introduction of a special provision in the law that allows child marriage in “special circumstances” has created a legal loophole that allows parents and guardians to marry off their daughters long before they reach 18.
There is little doubt that child marriage is detrimental to society in every way. Children are robbed of their childhood, subjected to sexual violence, undergo risky pregnancies and deliveries and may even die during childbirth. They also have underweight babies who may either die early or be stunted for life.
On paper, Bangladesh is in total agreement that child marriage is an evil that needs to be eliminated. But in practice, the government and society in general has not done enough to remove this malaise, which is likely to get worse in the coming months. The government must therefore jumpstart its national plan of action to end child marriage, with special monitoring mechanisms during this pandemic. This means building greater awareness through media campaigns and enforcement of anti dowry and anti child marriage laws. The special provision that allows for child marriage must be removed. Religious leaders must be brought on board to help in this fight against child marriage. Public officials and law enforcers must all be part of this endeavour so that all members of society recognise child marriage as an evil to be removed permanently in the best interests of our nation.