‘Concerted efforts can prevent child marriage’

Child marriage is the biggest violation of human rights for a girl child. Child marriage prevents a girl from taking her own decisions and living her life as she wants. Even today, 51 per cent of the girls in Bangladesh marry below the age of 18.

The situation is worsening during the coronavirus pandemic. Alongside government commitment, there is need for increasing awareness among parents, application of the law, monitoring and coordination between the government and non-government organisations. Such concerted efforts can prevent child marriage.

These observations were made at a virtual roundtable on ‘Can we prevent child marriage?’ held on Tuesday. The speakers said there must be budget allocation for the prevention of child marriage. The girl child must be seen as an asset, not a burden. Expenditure in girls’ education and other sectors must be seen as an investment.

The virtual roundtable was organised by the non-government international organisaton World Vision Bangladesh, Manusher Jonno Foundation and Plan International with support from Prothom Alo. The discussants said the rate of child marriage is increasing since the outbreak of coronavirus. However, while importance has been attached to relief and other programmes in order to tackle the coronavirus crisis, attention hasn’t been paid to efforts aimed at preventing child marriage. It hasn’t been possible to highlight child marriage as an important issue during the coronavirus pandemic.

Prothom Alo associate editor Abdul Quayum made the opening presentation at the roundtable. The event was moderated by Prothom Alo assistant editor Firoz Choudhury.

The focus is always on the girl and the girl’s parents when it comes to child marriage. Questions must also be raised as to why the boy’s side is arranging the marriage
Tony Michael Gomes, communications and advocacy director, World Vision Bangladesh

Chairman of the parliamentary standing committee of the ministry for social welfare, Rashed Khan Menon, said that the progress that had been made in preventing child marriage has been challenged by the outbreak of coronavirus. He said, “We certainly can halt child marriage. This is our duty. The social welfare ministry does not have any special programme for the prevention of child marriage. I will recommend that a special programme be taken up under this ministry.”

Vice president of the parliamentary caucus on child rights Aroma Dutta said that there were many problems tied up with child marriage. The bottom line is, it is not being possible to bring child marriage down to zero at the moment. She said that though there is a law against child marriage, the question is about how far the law is being implemented. She placed emphasis on providing girls with vocational and IT training alongside their education. She urged for a action plan to be formulated immediately to prevent child marriage.

The keynote presentation at the roundtable was made by senior manager for child protection and participation, World Vision Bangladesh, Strela Rupa Mallick, and Manusher Jonno Foundation’s programme coordinator Arpita Das.

Member of the National Human Rights Commission Namita Haldar said, Covid-19, poverty and various factors are blamed for child marriage, but people’s mindsets are also a big factor. Parents can educate their sons, but they give their daughters away in marriage. She recommended that strong committees headed by union parishad chairmen be formed with representatives of government and non-government organisations to prevent child marriage. Also, when registering the birth of their child, parents should sign a bond that they will not give their daughter in marriage before she is 18 years old.

Coordinator of the social welfare directorate’s child helpline 1098, Chowdhury Mohammad Mohaimen, said that the child about to be a victim of child marriage, or others, contact us over the helpline. Initiative is taken to stop the marriage and members of the case management team provide the family with all sorts of support.

Executive director of Manusher Jonno Foundation, Shaheen Anam, said if there is strong determination and commitment, if everyone carries out their responsibilities and if a daughter is valued in her family, then child marriage can certainly be prevented. She expressed her anger about parents using the excuse of poverty, lack of security and such to give their daughters in child marriage. She asked whether the child was secure once she was married. When the girl has a child and is forced to return to her father’s home, where was her security then?

Shaheen Anam said, child marriage is one of the long-term impacts of corona. If the matter is not paid attention now, an alarming situation will emerge. Support must be given to parents who are forced to give their girls in child marriage. A budget must be allocated to prevent child marriage. Also, she appealed, no one should forget the girls who have already been given away in marriage.

Senior operations director of World Vision Bangladesh, Chandan Z Gomes, referred to a UNICEF report, saying that the rate of child marriage has increased by 13 per cent during coronavirus. According to a rapid assessment carried out by World Vision from May to June last year, 95 per cent of the families faced financial crisis. Middle class families were entering poverty. He said that just as the government is giving importance to vaccines to tackle coronavirus, all-out efforts must be made to prevent child marriage too.

Director of Girls Rights at Plan International Bangladesh, Kashfia Feroz, spoke about the ongoing project to prevent child marriage in Kurigram. She said, Iti Khatun would play football in Kurigram. During this coronavirus pandemic, her parents wanted to marry her off, but they were stopped. But how long that they be held off, is the question.

Kashfia Feroz expressed concern at the increase of child pregnancies, maternal mortality, unwanted pregnancies and other problems. She said that attention must be paid to mental health too as many girls, suffering from mental problems due to being restricted to their homes during the pandemic, themselves are opting to get married.

Focal person of Unicef’s child protection group, Monira Hasan, said Bangladesh ranks fourth in the world among countries with high child marriage rates. She placed emphasis on coordinated measures by government, non-government and development organisations to prevent child marriage.

World Vision Bangladesh’s communications and advocacy director Tony Michael Gomes said people’s prevailing views about child marriage needed to be changed. He said that the focus is always on the girl and the girl’s parents when it comes to child marriage. Questions must also be raised as to why the boy’s side is arranging the marriage.