Incidents of child marriage among girl children increased during the coronavirus outbreak, posing a major setback to the empowerment of women in the country, researchers and rights activists observed.
The damage done to women and society as a whole by early marriages would be difficult to redress, they observed citing economic and social fallout.
Researches also indicated that the increase in child marriage could increase dropout rate after the reopening of schools across the country.
The authorities were yet to carry out any major studies to measure the rate of child marriage since the onset of COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020, said officials concerned.
The government should conduct nationwide surveys and research works to determine the actual situation, researchers and rights activists added.
A report of Manusher Jonno Foundation, published on January 9 this year, showed that there was a 7 per cent spike in child marriage in 2020 when at least 101 child marriage incidents were reported and over 6,000 child marriage attempts were prevented.
The number of phone calls received by the National Helpline Centre for violence against women and children under the women and children affairs ministry showed that the incidents of child marriage increased in 2020 and 2021.
In 2020, the centre received total 13,21,167 phone calls out of which 2,047 or 0.15 per cent calls were for complaining about child marriage, and till March 3 this year the centre received 1,66,196 phone calls while 477 or 0.28 per cent calls were for complaining about child marriage.
In 2019, the number of total received calls by the centre was 18,11,857, out of which 2,170 or 0.12 per cent calls were for complaining about early marriage.
The centre statistics also showed that following the phone calls the authorities stopped 1,159 early marriages in 2019, 1,002 in 2020 and 211 till March 3 this year.
According to a UNICEF report published in October 2020, in Bangladesh, 51 per cent of young women were married before their 18th birthday.
Among the country’s entire female population, 38 million married before the age of 18, of which, 13 million married before age 15.
Married girls are over four times more likely to be out of school than unmarried girls, it also said.
Bangladesh has the highest prevalence of child marriage in South Asia, and is among the 10 countries worldwide with the highest rate, it added.
Manusher Jonno Foundation executive director Shaheen Anam told New Age that during the COVID-19 outbreak, empowerment of women, especially in rural areas, experienced a major setback economically, socially and politically.
Financial uncertainty amid the ongoing novel coronavirus outbreak was a major reason for the increase in the number of child marriage, she said, adding that as many families were pushed to the brink, parents had to make a decision and early marriage for them meant that they would be left with one less mouth to feed.
‘Some parents thought that it was better to marry them off during the outbreak and on top of that, the feeling of insecurity regarding the girls was another reason behind the spike in early marriage,’ she added.
After the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, the government imposed a two-month-long lockdown across Bangladesh during which many people lost their jobs.
According to Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies about 1.64 crore people became ‘new poor’ in the country due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Financial crisis forced many people to marry off their girl child while many female students were unlikely to join schools after reopening, said researchers and activists.
According to Polli Shomaj, under BRAC’s Community Empowerment Programme, it prevented 371 child marriages between January and September 2019, while 97 incidents of child marriage were reported by community members.
During the same time period in 2020, they prevented 646 incidents of child marriage, while community members reported 146 incidents of child marriage, showed a report.
Another report of BRAC Education Programme and BRAC Advocacy for Social Change observed that the increase in child marriages and the increased likelihood of girls dropping out of school were among the potential barriers to bring back the students to classrooms across the country when schools reopen.
On January 19, Campaign for Popular Education published its Education Watch Study 2020-2021 (Phase 1) entitled Interim Report: Reopening Schools – when and how, as per which around 38 per cent primary school teachers believed that around 20 per students could drop out while the district and upazila education officers also believed that the dropout rate could be increased after the reopening of schools.
CAMPE executive director Rasheda K Choudhury said that though there were no nationwide studies, signs were indicating that child marriages increased during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Rasheda said that during the outbreak the government made an effort to check the crises in the health and economic sectors but they should also make effort in checking child marriages.
‘The damage done to society due to early marriages is very difficult to redress,’ she said and urged the government to conduct a nationwide study after the reopening of the schools to determine the dropout and child marriages rates.
‘There were no proofs about the increase in child marriages during the COVID-19 outbreak,’ said the state minister for social welfare Md Ashraf Ali Khan Khasru.
He told New Age on Wednesday that the rate of child marriages stayed the same while field workers did not also complain about the rise in early marriages.
Ministry of women and affairs joint secretary and Multi-Sectoral Programme on Violence Against Women project director (additional charge) AKM Shameem Akhter told New Age on Thursday that they had no national data on the number of child marriage taking place during the period of the novel virus outbreak.
Currently they were busy taking programmes to support women and children in needs before conducting any study, he added.
Directorate of Primary Education additional director general Sohel Ahmed told New Age on Sunday that the report of the Annual Primary School Census 2020 was yet to be published.
He said that as per their knowledge students of the primary classes had already been admitted to higher classes this year.
‘Some private primary schools closed down during the outbreak and we had already served notice to admit these children to government schools,’ he said, adding, ‘so I think that there were no incidents of girl children dropping out of schools.’
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