The disruptions to socio-economic conditions caused by Covid-19 have only exacerbated the menace of child marriage in Bangladesh that was one of the 10 countries globally in terms of early marriage and the first in South Asia even before the pandemic.
Against this backdrop, a campaign against child marriage was launched on Thursday by the USAID (United States Agency for International Development). It will be implemented by Johns Hopkins University working in collaboration with the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs.
"Individual organisations and sporadic interventions can't really move the needle much on this issue, which is deeply entrenched and influenced by gender, cultural and social norms. But together we can achieve so much more," said Sanjanthi Velu, of the Center for Communication Programmes, John Hopkins University at a webinar.
The "Actions to Prevent Child Marriage in Bangladesh" campaign will put young voices and leaders at the center of planning and design, she said. "Engagement of influencer groups such as imams, marriage registers, journalists and youth groups is extremely important."
To shed light on the current state of child marriage in the country, USAID's Ujjiban Social and Behavior Change Communication Project at the webinar said that in addition to half the girls being married off before they attained the legally permissible age, in continuation of the previous trend, 13,886 underage marriages had taken place between April and October 2020 in 84 upazilas.
The figure suggested a 13% increase in child marriages last year due to the pandemic, as reported by Manusher Jonne Foundation. The data was presented at the webinar as the basis for the campaign.
The goal is to increase community and mass media engagement, advocacy and capacity building (through education of girls). This also entails strong monitoring and reporting mechanisms of child marriages in villages.
In partnership with Radio Today, Ujjiban also brought four young students onto their platform to share their thoughts about child marriage.
A pre-recorded video was run at the virtual dialogue, in which the students emphasised the importance of awareness campaigns.
"If we come to know that there is an underage individual getting married in our neighbouring house, we let it just happen instead of alerting the authorities and calling the police," said Shomoritha Paul Ayshi, a student of Moulvibazar Government College.
There were instances, she said, when "local public representatives increased the age of the girl on the birth certificate to allow the marriage to take place."
Two years ago, Ayshi tried to stop a child marriage and the bride's family later asked her if she would take the responsibility of their daughter, had she committed suicide.
In addition to media awareness campaigns, effective interventions by local representatives, elders, law enforcement agencies and religious community leaders can put a stop to this, said another high school student, Md Bayzeed.
Purabi Matin, human development media manager of a2i (Access to Information Programme), told a success story of an underage girl who had called the 333 helpline and prevented her marriage.
More than 6,000 young girls like her have been saved from child marriage through the helpline, she added.
Xerses Sidhwa, director, office of population, health, nutrition and education, USAID Bangladesh, stressed the need for country-specific evidence and effective interventions to reach the most vulnerable communities at risk of child marriage.
While Bangladesh continues to make strides in economic development and infrastructure, "we have failed in countering child marriage crisis," said Amir Hossain, of the Directorate General of Family Planning.
Community leaders need to engage parents in order to integrate micro-level interventions to prevent child marriages, he said. "Youth clubs need to be made into information hubs."
Md. Sayedul Islam, secretary to the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, spoke about initiatives taken to reach women in remote areas who did not have access to digital tools. He highlighted the use of 109 hotline that had received calls from more than 4,000 individuals, mostly women, daily.
Sayedul said a holistic approach could end child marriage by 2041, as promised by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
"We have many projects in place to achieve this goal. We already have more than 150,000 adolescents engaged in 4,880 adolescent clubs across the country," he said.