The government's plan of action has set the goal to reduce the rate of marriage of girls in the 15 to 18 year-old age bracket to 30 per cent. According to the MICS report, this rate is 51.4 per cent. But there is no record of how far this rate has increased or decreased in 2020-21.
The ministry for women and children's affairs keeps a record of how many child marriages have been prevented. This correspondent over the past few weeks contacted by mobile phone, SMS and directly, several relevant officials of the ministry and the department of women's affairs for information in this regard, but to no avail.
Seven years ago at the Girl Summit in London, prime minister Sheikh Hasina announced the target of decreasing the rate of marriage among girls of the 15 to 18 age group, and also declared her commitment to eliminate child marriage by 2041.
The ministry of women and children affairs' multi-sectoral programme dealing with the prevention of repression against women and children, also looks after the prevention of child marriage. Abul Hossain had been the project director of this programme for 15 years and is now a consultant for the United National Development Programme (UNDP). Speaking to Prothom Alo, he said the government's target to eliminate child marriage is not being achieved this year. The government has union level committees for the prevention of child marriage, but these committees and NGO volunteers have not been able to work during the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, efforts to prevent child marriage have been hampered.
Seven years ago at the Girl Summit in London, prime minister Sheikh Hasina announced the target of decreasing the rate of marriage among girls of the 15 to 18 age group, and also declared her commitment to eliminate child marriage by 2041. The officials were unwilling to even provide information regarding what the concerned departments have been doing in this regard. A couple of officials did say that they had been unable to collect information properly from the field due to coronavirus.
The primary results of the government's Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey 2017-18 were published in January last year. This report of the National Institute of Population Research and Training (NIPORT) is considered the largest public health related survey in the country. The survey, conducted on persons of the 20 to 49 year old age group, states that one-third of them (31 per cent) were married before they were 15 years old. And 59 per cent married before they were 18. This rate was determined by running the survey on 20 to 24 year-olds. The 2014 survey also stated that the rate of marriage of those under 18 was 59 per cent. So the percentage of child marriage in both the surveys remains unchanged. UNICEF, however, puts the rate of child marriage at 51 per cent. So those involved in the sector consider the rate of child marriage in this country to be between 50 to 59 per cent.
Child marriage increases during corona
UNICEF programme officer (gender) Tahmina Huq said that an analysis of various data of the government indicates that the present efforts to prevent child marriage will have to be stepped up by at least eight times if the national target is to be achieved. And if the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) are to be fulfilled, these efforts must be increased 17 fold.
The National Plan of Action to End Child Marriage has been drawn up to eliminate child marriage within the specified time by means of the prevailing institutional efforts, the on-going programmes and joint endeavour. The baseline of the plan of action is 2018-2030. The ministry for women and children's affairs is coordinating the work of various ministries in implementing this plan of action.
When asked about the present situation, the secretary of the women and children's affairs ministry, Md Sayedul Islam, admitted that there had been a decline in the child marriage prevention programme due to the coronavirus restrictions and the restricted movement of people. He did not provide any specific information, simply telling Prothom Alo that it could not be said how far the government was lagging behind the target of preventing child marriage. This could be determined by running a nationwide survey when this year ended.
Information from the field, however, indicates that child marriage has been increasing during the coronavirus times. Due to coronavirus-related work, the local administration is focusing less on child marriage. The additional deputy commissioner (general) of Chapainawabganj, Md Zakiul Islam, told Prothom Alo's district correspondent Anwar Hossain that there had been over 500 child marriages in the district between March last year and August this year. A mobile court carried out a drive in five upazilas of the district on 9 July and arrested and fined nine persons including a kazi (Muslim marriage registrar) for involvement in child marriage.
A government official, recently promoted after being the deputy commissioner for three years, told Prothom Alo on condition of anonymity, there is no doubt that child marriage has increased during the prevalence of coronavirus. With the local government officials being busy with relief and other programmes, the number of child marriages being prevented has fallen.
Quoting the local administration, Prothom Alo's Kushtia correspondent Touhidi Hasan said that only 23 child marriages had been prevented over the past eight months in the district. Last year 45 child marriages had been prevented in the sadar upazila alone.
In a Prothom Alo report on 22 August about new ploys to carry out child marriage, it was said that nine child marriages had taken place over the past two months in Paikgachha, Khulna, by getting the notary public to falsely certify an increased age of the child. The Paikgachha UNO, ABM Khaled Siddiqui, said that with schools and colleges closed down due to corona, parents are giving away their under-age girls in marriage.
The parliamentary standing committee on the ministry for women and children's affairs feels that the number of child marriages is increasing because young girls are running away from home to get married. This was revealed in the minutes of the meeting held on 25 August by the parliamentary standing committee.
A survey run by Manusher Jonno Foundation says that from April to October last year, 13,886 child marriages had taken place in 84 upazilas of 21 districts. The highest number of child marriages, 1512, took place in Barguna.
Executive director Shaheen Anam of the non-government organisation Manusher Jonno, told Prothom Alo the problems created by child marriage will be among the long-term negative impacts on the society created by coronavirus. This includes unwanted pregnancies, maternal mortality, malnutrition, etc. Child marriage will have a negative impact on these indicators in the days to come. That is why the government needs to take appropriate measures against child marriage immediately.
Govt work to prevent child marriage
The national action plan to end child marriage has 237 strategies, and 172 programmes to be implemented within this year. Most of them are related to education and educational institutions. With educational institutions shut down since March last year due to coronavirus, these programmes have not been implemented.
Significant among the other programmes are, drawing up a list to supervise adolescent girls at risk; creating rehabilitation funds at a district, upazila and union level; providing financial assistance to insolvent families from the local government budget on condition that they don't marry off their daughters under 18 years old; and allocating funds in the district and upazila budgets to provide cash assistance. The programmes also include providing young girls with loans for vocational work, collecting socioeconomic information of the families at risk of child marriage, mapping, programmes to take families out of such situations in future, and special programmes under the social safety net for girls in slums at risk of child marriage. People's representatives have been told to identify poor families of young girls as families at risk and bring them under government grant programmes. However, the concerned departments have failed to provide any information as to how far all this has been implemented.
The government should have taken into cognizance that child marriage was increasing during the coronavirus pandemic. On the whole it can be said that the government has taken no active steps to meet the target of preventing child marriage. They just allowed child marriage to take place unhinderedSultana Kamal, former caretaker government adviser and human rights activist
At a field level, though, several deputy commissioners and UNOs have told Prothom Alo that no programmes has been started so far to create funds or provide cash to families where there is a risk of child marriage. Their activities for the time being are restricted to going and preventing child marriage when they receive news for such an incident happening.
Outside of these programmes, there are around 8000 clubs for young girls and boys being run under the women and children's affairs ministry in various unions and pourashavas. One of the main functions of these clubs is to raise awareness against child marriage. And 2,100 clubs for young girls and boys are being run under the Accelerating Protection for Children project. The project director, SM Latif, told Prothom Alo that with educational institutions closed due to corona, 450 clubs are being run virtually and some programmes are being run on a limited scale.
The 'Tothyo Apa' programme's yard meetings held to mobilise awareness against child marriage has been hampered.
Information from the helpline 109 says that 1,159 phone calls were received in 2019 to prevent child marriages. In 2020 this was 1,002. And till 26 June this year, there have been 612 such calls so far. Child marriage can also be prevented by calling 999, 333 and 1098.
Speaking to Prothom Alo, former caretaker government adviser and human rights activist Sultana Kamal said, the government has taken no active measures or set any precedent against child marriage, violence against women, corruption and the increase in the number of poor, during these coronavirus times. It shouldn't be that the government takes action only after such incidents occur. The government must have advance planning. The government should have taken into cognizance that child marriage was increasing during the coronavirus pandemic.
She said, on the whole it can be said that the government has taken no active steps to meet the target of preventing child marriage. They just allowed child marriage to take place unhindered.
* This report appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir