Despite numerous programmes and projects undertaken by the government, elimination of child marriage is still a far cry in the country as per the recent statistics and survey revealed by various public and private organisations.

According to the survey of Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey (BDHS) in 2017-18, nearly 60 per cent of the country’s girls are married before 18 years old. The picture was not different in 2014. The survey was conducted on currently married women aged between 20 to 24 years by counting how long they have been married to understand the trend of child marriage.

The rate in the BDHS survey was 65 per cent in 2007 and 2011 survey. It declined to 59 per cent in 2014 and remained the same since then.

Several local correspondents including this Prothom Alo correspondent visited a number of areas across the country to determine the reasons that perpetuates child marriage in the society. Despite social movement against child marriage the problem prevails due to the mindset of the majority and social pressure on the guardians, the correspondents found out.

However, a survey conducted by Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) of Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) shows the child marriage rate is little low in 2019. According to the sample survey, the rate is 51 per cent which was 52 per cent in 2012-13.

The government has made a new law to prevent child marriage along with adopting many other programmes. Social movement for preventing child marriage is growing in many areas. According to records of the government’s Department of Women Affairs, as many as 10 districts saw social prevention of child marriages in the past year. The department said, those districts are the most child marriage prone areas in the country.

How child marriage prevails
The government has undertaken a number of programmes to reduce child marriage including training government marriage registrars and district officers for women affairs. Providing stipends to female students in schools is another initiative to prevent child marriage. The government has also launched a help centre number 109 to call for emergency help to stop child marriage.

A number of private and non-profit organisations also took up different initiatives to stop child marriage.

And yet the practice could not be eradicated from the society due to people’s mindset and social condition.

Incidentally, police stopped a child marriage of a seventh grader in a village of Daudkandi upazila, Cumilla, in December when her neighbour called the police on 999.

The law enforcers fined the girl’s father 50,000 taka and made him sign a bond stating the girl would not be married off until she was 18 years old. The father, however, took the girl to her grandparent’s house and married off there the next day.

Besides social mindset, there is a lack of safety, awareness and education. There is also poverty and natural disasters which are responsible for the high number of child marriages.

A number of studies found that some guardians marry their minor daughters off by forging birth certificates and with the help of registrars. There are incidents of sentencing the offenders if caught, yet the marriages are not being invalid or cancelled.

A book titled ‘Udbhabani Upaye Balya Bibaha Nirodh’ (Preventing child marriage in innovative ways) was published in 2016 from the prime minister’s office. Forging birth certificates and marriage registrars’ unfair means are shown as the two major ways of child marriage.

The state minister for women and children affairs ministry Fazilatunnesa Indira could not be reached for comments on the updates about government’s plan of actions in this regard.

The Prothom Alo correspondents encountered a number of marriages where fake birth certificates were used with the help of the local moulvi (cleric) or marriage registrar in the middle of night.

Fake birth certificates are easy to get. Notary publics sometimes provide such fake age certificates. Sometimes the parents take their daughters to relatives’ houses and arrange marriages to avoid legal action.

A marriage registrar was sentenced to six months imprisonment recording the marriage of an underage girl in Mymensingh on 6 November. The case is not solved yet.

The government has pledged to meet UN’s sustainable development goals where stopping child marriage was one of the goals. The old law for the restriction of child marriage of 1929 was repealed by a new one in 2017. A special provision of marriage of a minor with the permission of the court under special circumstances was included in the new law.

Nina Goswami, a senior deputy lawyer of Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), also blamed loopholes in the law and the weakness in its enforcement for the growing number of early marriages of girls.

“The new law has made the parents, bride, grooms and the registrar responsible for child marriage. The amount of punishment and penalties has increased, too. Yet child marriage is not decreasing,” she told Prothom Alo.

Social concepts
Cumilla, Mymensingh, Gazipur, Pabna, Jhenaidah, Faridpur, Sirajganj, Rangpur, Khulna and Rajshahi are among the most child marriage prone districts in the country. This Prothom Alo correspondent, along with other local correspondents, has talked with people in person in these areas. The interviews showed a devastating perception of people towards child marriage. Most of the parents believe marriage is the ultimate goal of girls’ lives. Also, they think girls may be harassed or may have affairs if they are not married on time. The idea of finding an ‘eligible groom’ is another reason of early marriage.

At least 30 parents, students and teachers in Daudkandi, Cumilla, said stalking and harassment was responsible for early marriage. Some parents and teachers complained that the local public representatives did not take any initiative to control the miscreants. Parents in Khulna and Jhenaidah said they married their daughters early due to eve teasing.

A student, Afra Ibnat Afra, who recently passed the SSC exam said there had been 116 girl students in her class up till Grade Six. Among ,them only 86 took the SSC exam. Five of them were married already. The class teacher of the Jamalpur Mahishbathan RM High School said, at least 30 female students were married right after the exam.
In Mymensingh, poverty is high and the literacy rate is very low. Police officers and army members are considered here to be the most eligible grooms. On the other hand, parents in Cumilla find young men working overseas eligible for their daughters.

A survey conducted by Dhaka University’s Population Science department on child marriage in 2017 reveals child marriages in areas prone to natural disasters are high in numbers due to poverty, safety, lack of road transports and communications.

Resistance and prevention
People involved in preventing child marriage said, mainly young neighbours inform the authorities during any child marriage. Local representatives usually do not bother about these things. In some cases the representatives are seen to lead in such practices, even obstruct authorities from stopping the marriages when informed.

Mymensingh women’s department’s programme officer Sharmin Shahzadi said, local representatives help the parents in arranging marriages for their minor daughters and sometimes arrange fake birth certificates, too.

Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) of Haluaghat said, the representatives never take initiative to stop such marriages, though they help the authorities if they ask for.

Farida Yasmin, additional district magistrate of Mymensingh, who received the Faraaz Hossain Courage Award for preventing 59 child marriages in the area, said, the main reason of early marriage is not considering the girl children as assets while the only way to prevent it is to reduce poverty.

The Ministry of Women and Children Affairs undertook a National Plan of Action (2018-2030) aiming to bringing the number of marriages of girls under 15-years down to almost zero and reducing the overall child marriage by one-third. Its key goal is to eliminate child marriage by 2041.

According to gender specialist Ferdousi Sultana, it is high time to break away from the myth that law and penalties alone can solve this problem.

“It is necessary to make the people aware of what daughters can do for their parents and families if they are educated. Also, skill training and work opportunities for women must be increased in all sectors,” she added.

*The piece, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Farjana Liakat