There is no shortage of laws, policies and political commitment in the country to eradicate child marriage. However, there is lack of implementation

Rasheda K Choudhury, former advisor to the caretaker government, said a girl is harmed in three ways by child marriage. Speaking to Prothom Alo, she said a girl fails to move forward, being deprived of education. Early pregnancy poses as a risk to her health. And she and her child suffer from malnutrition. These issues challenge the society and the state in building a viable future.

There is no shortage of laws, policies and political commitment in the country to eradicate child marriage. However, there is lack of implementation. During the corona period, insecurities and absence of social awareness contributed to the rise of child marriage. There is a shortage of government data. The government has to collect data and find the shortcomings based on which it will be possible to adopt and implement policies as well as to invest.

Stumbling to fulfill promises

At the London Girl Summit on 22 July 2014, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pledged to abolish child marriages of girls under the age of 15 years by 2021, to reduce marriages of girls aged between 15 and 18 years by one-third and to eradicate child marriage altogether by 2041. Right after that, NAP was announced with a proposal to implement a total of 235 short (2018-21), medium (2018-25) and long term (2018-30) programmes, holding year 2018 as the base.

It is evident from various unofficial data and statements of government officials that the goal of dropping child marriage by 2021 has not been achieved.

Led by the state minister of state for women and children affairs, a 29-member national committee was formed on 21 January 2020 to exterminate child marriage. The committee has representatives from various ministries. The committee held its first meeting on 17 November last year. The ministries could not provide any progress report regarding the elimination of child marriage in that meeting, due to lack of coordination. Only the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs has 169 short-term proposed activities, which are still unimplemented for absence of any initiative.

As per the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017, girls under the age of 18 and boys under the age of 21 are considered minors for marriage. The child marriage restraint rules 2018, say minors can be married off under special provision, where applicable.

Huge gap between proposal and budget

Headed by Sayema Haque Bidisha, professor at the Department of Economics, Dhaka University, a study titled ‘Analysis of Public Budget Allocation for the Effective Implementation of the National Action Plan to End Child Marriage’ was conducted on the proposal and budget of national action plan on eradicating child marriage. She submitted the report of the study done for United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) on 6 December last year.

In that study Sayema Haque pointed out that among the top ministries in the 2021-22 budget allocation for the Annual Development Program (ADP), the three ministries to play a role in eliminating child marriage, women and children affairs ministry, education ministry and primary and mass education ministry were not included. Looking at the three fiscal years 2018-19, 2019-20 and 2020-21 of the revised ADP it can be seen that less than 1 per cent of the total allocation has been set aside for women and children affairs ministry which has the most activities to eradicate child marriage.

During the pandemic

A survey titled ‘Rapid Analysis of the Child Marriage Situation during Covid-19 in Bangladesh’, conducted in 84 upazilas of 21 districts in between April and October 2020 by Manusher Jonno Foundation, covered 13,886 child marriage. Among the girls, 50 per cent were 16-17 years old, 48 per cent were 13-15 years old and 2 per cent were only 10-12 years old. Child marriage was more prevalent in Barguna, Kurigram, Nilphamari and Lakshmipur districts.

According to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics and UNICEF's Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys 2019, a total of 51 per cent of women aged between 20 and 24 are married off before the age of 18 while, 15 per cent are married off before turning 15.

Sayema Haque's study shows, Chapainawabganj has the highest rate of child marriage (72 per cent) and Sylhet has the lowest (25 per cent).

As per the data of National Emergency Service 999, after receiving phone calls, 8,254 child marriages were prevented during the corona period from March 2020 to December 2021.

Government action

The father of a 15-year-old girl, who was a victim of child marriage in Satkhira last year, told Prothom Alo that he married off his daughter because he had found a ‘suitable husband’ He arranged the wedding in his own house, and faced no obstruction from anyone.

Some field-level rights activists working to prevent child marriage said in the districts where the trend of child marriage is more rampant, the administration stops any child marriage if they hear of it. Though there are local committees for prevention of child marriage, they are not very active. Many people's representatives are not eager to stop child marriage. As a result, if there are 100 child marriages, the administration gets the news of five only. Moreover, deputy commissioner and upazila nirbahi officers head more than 200 committees in total. There is no budget for holding so many meetings. So, they hold 8-10 committee meetings in one sitting. Although the issue of child marriage was not discussed, the meeting was held.

A social movement should be built against child marriage under the leadership of elected representatives

UNO Md Tomal Hossain of Natore’s Gurudashpur said activities like hanging up anti-child marriage billboards, holding awareness programmes including yard meeting and upazila committee meeting for prevention of child marriage was not discussed during the meeting.

Md Muhibuzzaman, additional secretary (child and co-ordination) at the ministry of women and children affairs said to Prothom Alo, four additional secretaries have been given responsibility of eight departments as child marriage increased in the corona period. The wave of Omicron disrupted that activity. As the health sector grabbed more attention for Covid, those projects had to endure budget cuts.

Prevention of a child marriage saves money

In 2019, a ninth grade girl (15) was married off in Nilphamari. Within a year and a half, she gave birth to a baby boy. The girl told Prothom Alo she had a dream of studying. Having a child at such a young age made her feeble, her boy is also malnourished.

The study of Manusher Jonno Foundation shows among about 14,000 victims of child marriages, 5,089 girls became pregnant without planning.

Sayema Haque's research report says that without child marriage, maternal, neonatal and infant mortality will be dropped; reduction of health risks will increase ability to work and hospital expenses will be reduced. Considering these, it is possible to lessen the financial loss by approximately Tk 3 lakh 74 thousand through prevention of a child marriage.

Abul Hossain, project director of multi-sectoral programme on violence against women, was the focal person during the national action plan. The retired official told Prothom Alo that there is a need for extensive campaign on resisting child marriage under public and private initiatives to eradicate child marriage. The committee that is supposed to work on this issue starting from national to grassroots level has to do the work smoothly. Besides, a social movement should be built against child marriage under the leadership of elected representatives.

* This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Nourin Ahmed Monisha