Covid-19, an invisible virus with no vaccine, shut down the whole world and changed almost everything. It was patently unimaginable, but the reality is, it has happened to us and to the world.
We talk about changes that we are experiencing right now, but one change which should equally be focused on and is being overlooked, is "child marriage", a truly global problem hitting countries across cultures, ethnicities, and even religions.
Bangladesh government has initiated various National Action Plans to end child marriage in compliance with the UNICEF-UNFPA Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage, South Asian Initiative to End Violence Against Children (SAIEVAC), Kathmandu Call to Action to End Child Marriage in Asia.
But the concern is when there is any catastrophe like war, disaster, refugee crisis, or pandemic, the rates of child marriage generally rise up. UNFPA estimates there will be 13 million more child marriages by 2030 than there would have been prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Due to a lack of awareness and access to education, economic scarcity, poverty, the rate of child marriage is increasing in Bangladesh during this pandemic.
Plan International, a development and humanitarian organisation conducted a study in Kurigram and found out 40 child marriage took place on February, 29 on March, 19 on April, and 33 in May.
A total of 73 separate incidents of child marriage occurred within two weeks of the span when a study was undertaken by the Gender Justice and Diversity Division of BRAC in 11 districts.
Along with factors responsible for child marriage in typical circumstances, there are some specific reasons found by the study which are pushing the rate of child marriage too high during this pandemic.
According to the study, 85 percent marriage took place due to guardian's concern for their daughter's future, school closure is responsible for 71 percent of child marriage, 62 percent occurred due to the preference of potential grooms who lost their job overseas and returned to their village, low income or inability of guardians to maintain family facilitated 61 percent of marriages.
As a Muslim majority country with cultural and traditional complexity, child marriage is frequently regarded as a safe harbour for young girls. However, Bangladesh ratified the Convention on the Rights of Child (CRC) and it sets a minimum age of marriage of 18 years under Article 1.
As per Article 24(3) of the convention, the government of Bangladesh is obliged to take "all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children."
Article 19(1) of the convention stated, "States parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, … including sexual abuse."
There is a law (The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 2017) enacted in Bangladesh aiming to prevent children from getting married. However, Section 19 of this Act allows marriages between minors by the court under special circumstances with the consent of the parents or guardians, for protecting the best interest of the child.
The flexibility in the law might be helpful in crucial situations. However, the concept of special circumstances varies between people. Therefore, this section is subject to interpretation.
When there is no example of any special circumstances and no explanation of what the "best interest of the child" means under which underage marriages are permissible, there is a distinct possibility that the special provision will be misinterpreted, which may contradict with its very aim to prevent underage marriages.
Underage marriages because of school closure, financial insecurity, or potential grooms at hand are spreading wrong messages to the society as there is confusion if all these factors mentioned above fall under special circumstances. Thus, the philosophy of CRC has not been reflected in the aforesaid section.
During this pandemic, the administration seems unable to prevent child marriages and its socioeconomic impact upon society and is pushing back the government from achieving its goal. It is high time to turn back the wheel of child marriage rate and hence, the government, NGOs, and society at large must work to end child marriage.
Alongside, girls can lead the way to end child marriage in their respective communities. For now, the following measures may be taken into consideration during the Covid-19 pandemic:
- The concerned authority should ensure that the "special circumstances" clause is not being misinterpreted and promote alternative interpretations of religious texts to rebut the concept that early marriage is required or approved.
- Importance should be given to the efficiency and effectiveness of the birth and marriage registration systems, especially their accessibility in rural areas, enforcing the legal age at marriage and strengthening the penalties for non-compliance.
- Cash incentives might help and alternative work for those who lost their job should be made available as economic scarcity caused by the pandemic is likely to cause people to marry off their daughters early.
- The government should continue scholarships for girls even during the pandemic. It is evident that teaching girls and making them aware of their rights can reduce the likelihood of child marriage by up to one third in Bangladesh.
- Accessibility of online classes for girls should be ensured, hence the government should focus on how the internet can be made available at a feasible price.
- The monitoring mechanism of the anti-child marriage committees should be made digital as it is not possible to visit door to door during such an epidemic. In that case, complaints against child marriage can be made via hotline numbers, mail, or fax.
- The government should arrange awareness campaigns to make more people aware, especially in villages and remote areas, against child marriage. However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic it can virtually be arranged. Media, in this instance, helps the most to influence public opinion.
If we want to end child marriage, we have to find out the root causes that perpetuate child marriage.
It is noteworthy that partnerships between girls who suffer most, general people, influential persons in the society, civil society organisations, NGOs, government, and international organisation for children will help us to get one step closer to preventing child marriage in Bangladesh.
Nothing should be an obstacle to stop child marriage and, in this regard, Natalia Kanem, head of the UNs' sexual and reproductive health agency said, "We cannot let anything, not even the Covid pandemic, get in our way."
Sarmin Akter is a LLM Student at Jagannath University.