Nilanjana (not her real name) was an eighth grader in March 2020 when the surging pandemic closed her Basabati Rahmania Secondary school in Bagerhat, along with shutdown of educational institutions across the country.
With the closure getting unexpectedly longer her poor parents, struggling to maintain a five-member family, decided to marry her off and “ease their burden”. But the marriage dissolved in just three months.
Unable to bear her husband’s torture, the little girl gathered the courage to break away from the toxic relationship and returned to her patents after filing for a divorce.
Nilajona broke down in tears while describing the hell she had to live through in her ex in-law’s house.
“My father, a hawker by profession, used to live hand to mouth. We were thrown in deep waters after the lockdown as my father could not earn anymore,” she said.
“I could not say no to my helpless father that time,” Nilanjona continued. “Now I want to go to school again as everything seems to be coming back on track.”
Increasing rate of school dropouts and child marriage will surely top the list among the adverse impacts of such a lengthy closure of educational institutions in Bangladesh.
Poor families in the country’s hinterland, who once were encouraged to send their children to school by the school meals programme, could not withstand the onslaught of Covid and its devastating impact on their livelihood.
Early marriages of under-aged girls have been a common feature in this impoverished coastal district. But the Covid crisis has compounded the social problem with school going girls becoming the victims. Child marriage spread like an epidemic during the coronavirus pandemic in Bangladesh.
Giving a break-up of the child marriages in his district, education officer Kamruzzaman said, 497 cases were recorded in Bagerhat sadar upazila, 391 in Fakirhat, 344 in Mollahat, 407 in Chitalmari, 516 in Kachua, 237 in Rampal, 218 in Mongla, 355 in Morelganj and 213 in Sharankhola upazilas.
The Covid-induced poverty and resulting child marriages have shattered dreams of many parents about their daughters.
“My daughter was married off to a neighbouring auto-rickshaw driver and now she is pregnant. We are worried about her health,” the sad mother of a teenaged girl, a school drop-out.
Acting headmaster of Jahanabad Girls High School, Bagerhat, Uttam Kumar Paul said that 18 girls from class-V to class-X of his school have been victims of child marriages.
“Of them, seven returned to school but the rest are feared to have dropped out,” he added.
Similarly, principal of Bagerhat Multipurpose Collegiate School, Farhana Akhter, said that 22 of her students from classes between eight and ten married off during the school closure.
Abdus Salam, the headmaster of Rahmania Secondary School in Bagerhat said that 11 students of his institution could not escape early marriage.
“Many more would have suffered the same fate if schools remained closed a little longer,” he noted.
Eighteen girls of Basabati Secondary School were married off, informed assistant headmaster of the institution Kartik Chandra Pal.
Bagerhat deputy commissioner Mohammad Azizur Rahman said that his administration prevented as many as 400 child marriages in the last one and a half years.
“Legal actions will be taken against those involved in child marriage. The administration is vigilant in ensuring that illegal birth certificates are not issued under any circumstances in order to prevent premature pregnancy,” he added.
Bangladesh has made significant strides in reducing child and maternity rate over the years.
However, the progress could be jeopardised if child marriage increases at an exponential rate.
“It will be impossible to reduce child and maternal mortality if early marriage continues to increase,” said Pradeep Kumar Bakshi, health and family planning officer at Bagerhat sadar upazila.