Child marriage during Covid-19 pandemic
Marriage is a social and religious bond or legal contract through which a marital relationship is established between two adult man and woman. Marriage is an institution through which intimate and sexual relation between man and woman gain social recognition.
In Bangladesh according to law, childhood of a child (male or female) has been fixed up to the age of 18 years. The Bangladesh Marriage Act has fixed the age of marriage for a male and female 21 and 18 years respectively. If any one of them gets married before the age of 18, it is called child marriage. The marriage act has also fixed some punishment for child marriage.
If a man aged 21 years or above or a woman aged 18 years or above agrees to enter into a marital relationship with an immature person, that person will be punished with imprisonment for two years or fine as up to fifty thousand taka or both. Anyone who conducts a child marriage will be liable to imprisonment for two years or a fine of up to fifty thousand taka or both, unless he or she can prove that the marriage was not a child marriage and there should have sufficient evidence.
If the parents or guardians involved in child marriages give permission for marriage or fail to terminate the marriage, the person will be punished with imprisonment for two years or fine up to taka fifty thousand or both. However, though a woman is found guilty but she cannot be imprisoned. But despite having the act, rules and regulations various study reports show that child marriage has increased worldwide including Bangladesh during Covid-19 pandemic. This deadly virus has greatly affected not only life but also society and the economy. Closing of educational institutions for a long time, many poor families are pushing girls towards child marriage. As a result educationists fear that in future dropout rate in educational institution will rise.
Child marriage has always been a major obstacle to the development of Bangladesh, although various steps are being taken to address it, but the covid-19pandemic is having a negative impact on all efforts. According to UNICEF 10 million additional child marriages may occur before the end of the decade, threatening years of progress in reducing the practice of child marriage. UNICEF also mentioned that in Bangladesh, 59 percent of girls get married before 18 years and 22 percent before 15 years. Despite significant progress in recent years, Bangladesh has the fourth highest prevalence of child marriage in the world.
Last year (2020), BRAC's Gender Justice and Diversity section conducted a survey on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on women and adolescents in 11 districts across the country. The study revealed that child marriage has increased by 13 percent in the country due to the pandemic. This is the highest rate of child marriage in Bangladesh in the last 25 years. The survey found that parents' income dropped and schools closure during the pandemic? these two are the main reasons for the increase in child marriage.
According to BRAC's research, child marriage increased by 75 per cent due to joblessness of parents during covid-19 pandemic. Around 71 percent parents forced to marry their daughter due to uncertainty of opening the school and 62 percent of them forced to give marriage their daughter due to feeling of insecure earing, long lasting of pandemic, etc. Sexual harassment of children by known people during lockdown is also a cause of child marriage reported by the study.
Apart from BRAC study, reports of international and national NGOs also show that child marriage has increased at an alarming rate in the country. Although the government, local administrations, law enforcement agencies and NGOs are working hard to prevent child marriage across the country, the expected results are not being achieved.
Experts have also identified several harmful aspects of child marriage such as it is a violation of children's rights; adolescent girls are forced to stop their instincts, growth and mobility. If someone get married before the age of 18, it is seen that due to family and social pressure, most of the teenage girls get pregnant and give birth to children within 1 year of marriage. A girl's body is not suitable for pregnancy and childbirth before the age of 20.
Therefore, pregnancy and childbirth before the age of 20 is risky for the life of a teenage mother and her child. Premature childbirth increases the risk of maternal and child mortality. The cost of health care increases, which becomes a burden for the family. Lack of knowledge about family planning leads to tendency to have more children as a result of having more children, women reach old age prematurely. Pregnancy during adolescence results in malnutrition in girls and complications during pregnancy; marriage at a young age tends to lead to multiple marriages among men.
Moreover, child marriage does not make it possible to take advantage of higher education, skills development trainings which hinder in solving one's own personal obstacles and not forming one's own perspective on life. Due to lack of higher education and skilled training, one has to engage in low-income occupations, which are mostly manual labour. But a large majority of them remain unemployment. As a result a good portion of working population became burden for the country which ultimately hinders the progress or development of the country.
Ending child marriage is a priority for both the Government of Bangladesh and UNICEF. However, to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target to end child marriage by 2030, and the national target to end child marriage by 2041, Bangladesh requires more efforts to bring change. Progress must be at least 8 times faster than the rate of the past decade to meet the national target, and 17 times faster to meet the SDG target. According to UNICEF, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic now threatens to roll back progress on ending child marriage. As children and families cope with school closures, loss of income and increased pressure in the home, there are heightened risks of child marriage.
Thus, to prevent child marriage, mass awareness building is crucial at the moment. Enforcement of law by the authority has to be ensured. Financial security and social safety net programme needs to be strengthened for the poorest people. Teachers, representatives of local administration, public representatives, religious leaders and people of all strata in the society have to come forward to protect child marriage. Beside government organizations, NGOs and other voluntary organizations need to undertake more programmes and projects to make people aware and to change their attitude towards child marriage and to protect it. Vaccination for the students and teachers has to be given priority and steps should to be taken to reopen educational institutions as soon as possible.
The writer is a research consultant, Human Development Research
Centre (HDRC), Dhaka