Government agencies, non-governmental organisations and the community need to innovate creative methods of awareness building that will enlighten both parents and daughters so as to prevent child marriage, writes Tasnim Nowshin Fariha
CHILD marriage is an everyday phenomenon in Bangladesh. However, the way we conceptualise this term still has some major defects. Traditional definitions often confuse ‘child marriage’ with ‘forced marriage’. A critical rethinking, therefore, might help us to see the contrasting child marriage narratives and the associated challenges to address.
The World Bank advocates that ‘one of the best ways to end child marriage is to keep girls in school’. School closure, whilst essential to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, is likely to create long term negative effects on girls’ lives — particularly in poor and remote families. Against this backdrop, child marriage, which was previously seen as a strategy by families to offload their burden of having daughters, is now being preferred by some girls themselves. This shift to girls pursuing under-aged marriages is ominous, as it will amplify our existing burden of child brides. The Manusher Jonno Foundation reports an alarming 44 per cent spike in our national child marriage rates in 2020.
‘No one forced me into this marriage. I am 16 years of age and am married to a man of 31. My parents never wanted me to get married so early. During the general holiday, we returned to our village. There, all I saw was suffocating home life, domestic violence, poverty and hunger. I have had no relation with studies since last year. Though, my parents allowed my brother to attend Sangsad TV classes at a local shop, they never allowed me because our village is full of hooligans and not safe for girls. My parents cannot afford television or smartphone. I had a few friends but all of them were in Dhaka. There was no glimpse of happiness in my life’, said Jori Akhter.
‘Upon returning to Dhaka, my parents wanted me to take up some job. But I don’t want to clean the latrines of someone else’s house. Cooking for own husband, rather, seemed a better option to me. There was a guy from our village who just returned from Kuwait. I was so frustrated with my life back then that I immediately agreed to his marriage proposal. Only he could rescue me from this hell. Many girls in our village are doing the same,’ she added.
Jori Akhter represents thousands of left behind girls, who reside at the lowest rung of society. Around 38.6 million students are out of school in Bangladesh with 51 per cent girls at primary level and 54 per cent at secondary level. To curb educational losses, the government has introduced digital education and distant learning. But what about the poorest of poor girls who are caught in a ‘gender digital divide’ and cannot afford smartphones, televisions or internet?
Structural barriers, digital divide, security concerns, fear of violence and social norms, eg mobility restriction, along with many other risk factors culminated by COVID-19 outbreak continue to deprive poor girls of their right to education and other opportunities. Many of them see no possibility of ever returning to school or of a better future. While a few girls find it unnecessary to continue their education anymore, as they attend schools mainly for stipends and meals with little or no focus on educational attainments.
When schools are closed, girls are generally given more household responsibilities due to gender norms. In a country like Bangladesh, where the healthcare system is not well equipped to tackle epidemiological emergencies, the burden of family health care disproportionately falls on the young shoulders of adolescent girls beside their mothers, leaving them with little or no time for rest and leisure.
Lack of rest, recreation and amusement can lead to a severe amount of mental stress. During the general holiday that the government imposed as a preventive measure against COVID-19, rural girls remained home bound and bored. Unlike boys, they are generally not allowed to go outside home, even when they need to attend classes on television or internet. They are usually only allowed to visit relatives or neighbours. Social distancing measures and a growing fear of violence, however, have limited this scope too. On top of it, they have no means of entertainment at home. Urban girls at least can divert their stress and monotony through watching cable, browsing internet or gossiping with friends over phone. Poor girls at remote households or urban slums have no access to such luxuries.
In congested slum quarters, there is no privacy. During the general holiday, girls did not have enough space for menstrual hygiene practices such as changing sanitary napkins. Rising poverty and growing tension also aggravated the risk of gender based family violence. The pandemic has triggered intra-household gender inequality, through minimising a girls’ access to adequate food, health care and other resources. Deprivation of freedom and opportunities, lack of private space as well as volatile home environment, led many girls to suffer from depression, frustration and other emotional turmoil. Yet, the issue of their mental health remains overlooked in our policy talks.
As a strategy often adopted by poor parents to mend household economy, girl children can be forced into submitting to hazardous labour, ranging from domestic jobs to sex work. On the flip side, girl labourers who lost their jobs due to the pandemic might receive negative attitudes and mistreatment from family members. Being frustrated with adverse life conditions, many girls see the option of ‘early marriage’ as the only escape route.
They feel that life would be easier at husband’s residence compared to their suffocating parental nest. Most of them, however, are neither aware of the reality nor mature enough to foresee the practical consequences. The long-term effects of child marriage include generations of girls and young women being denied education, health, the right to work and earn and the agency to escape domestic violence.
The Child Marriage Restrain Act 2017 provides punishment for minor girls if they contract an under-aged marriage willingly. Legal illiteracy, however, fails to generate awareness about the law among the masses.
Public health measures and massive economic downturn affect women and girls more adversely due to existing gender inequalities. School closure has created some unprecedented and unique challenges for many girls. Policy makers, therefore, should address these specific challenges while planning disease control.
Government agencies, non-governmental organisations and the community need to innovate creative methods of awareness building that will enlighten both parents and daughters so as to prevent child marriage.
Tasnim Nowshin Fariha is a student of women and gender studies, University of Dhaka.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Opinion