Bangladesh ranks fourth globally in the rate of child marriage. The propensity of child marriage is more prevalent in backward areas of the country like the haor (wetlands) and char (shoal) areas. Meanwhile, the pace of implementation of the national plan of action to prevent child marriage is slow.

Elimination of child marriage by 2041 requires cooperation from the government as well as development partners and non-governmental organisations. Plus, religious leaders, politicians, 'nikah' (marriage) registrars, school authorities and parents have to be made even more aware to stop child marriage.

These issues came up in a roundtable titled 'The existing situation of child marriage in char and haor areas and the way ahead', organised by Prothom Alo and CARE Bangladesh’s Shouhardo-3 programme with the help of the United States Agency for International Development, USAID. The event was held at Prothom Alo office in capital’s Karwan Bazar.

Md Moktar Hossain, director (social security) at the department of social services said during the roundtable, marriages are still happening without registration. If marriages are not registered, many privileges and benefits are denied.

There’s a link between climate change and child marriage. In families that are climate refugees, girls are married off at an early age. An integrated system is required for verifying the national identity card and birth registration information to control child marriage, he added.

Ayesha Siddiquee, deputy director (planning) at the department of women affairs said that alongside different ministries of the government, development partners and non-governmental organisations are working together to eradicate child marriage by 2041.

The government has taken quite a few initiatives to provide economic support to girls in haor and char regions. In order to claim these government provided facilities, the guardians are required to submit a pledge that says they will send their girl children to schools and not marry them off, she said.

Shahnaz A Zakaria, senior advisor of USAID's Humanitarian Assistance Office, cited the issue of child marriage as a long-standing problem. She said that people have grown more aware of child marriage now than before. It’s impossible for anyone to prevent child marriage alone, rather a collective effort is required.

CARE Bangladesh country director Ramesh Singh said that measures that are being taken now to prevent child marriage, should have been taken way before. If girls get the chance to be educated and become economically independent, it is the country, society and family that benefit more. Society's outlook towards girls is very important when it comes to child marriage.

In his welcome speech, Marc Nosbach, chief of party for CARE Bangladesh’s Shouhardo-3 programme said that CARE Bangladesh is working to change society's perception of marrying off girls at an early age. Religious leaders and guardians have a significant role to play in stopping child marriage.

Syeda Ashrafiz Zaharia Prodhan, adviser of women empowerment for CARE Bangladesh’s Shouhardo-3 programme presented the concept paper there. She said, due to the local power structure, Nikah registrars are often forced into registering marriages.

It has to be thought how religious leaders can be used in preventing child marriage. Plus, parents have to be made understand the benefits of educating girls, he added.

The concept paper forwarded several recommendations towards stopping child marriage. Introducing a two-step process to verify bride's age prior to marriage, setting up district and upazila level committees to control child marriage, training local religious leaders, school authorities, Nikah registrars to ensure a positive environment for girls, necessary training on verifying the birth registration and national identity card online, enhancing economic capability locally and building leadership quality in women are the notable ones among them.

Tania Haque, a professor at the women and gender studies department of Dhaka University, said there are more difficulties than opportunities for girls in the haor and char regions. There should be more discussions about areas where child marriage is prevailing and those who are patronising child marriage.

Ali Asgar, public prosecutor of Dhaka Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunal believes, child marriage won’t stop just from verifying the birth registration. He said that national identity cards are not provided until someone turns 18. So, the national identity card has to be made compulsory for getting married.

Mahin Sultan, senior fellow of practice at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development believes, backward social ideologies play a significant role in child marriage.

She said, it’s an excuse that child marriages happen due to financial reasons. People are noticed taking loans instead, for marrying their daughters off. The government and the society are required to play a part to bring about a change in this situation.

Iqbal Hossain, secretary general of Bangladesh Muslim Nikah Registrars Association complained that local politicians and public figures also pressurise into conducting child marriages. He said it is vital to train Nikah registrars on how to verify birth certificates online.

Development partners

Tahmina Huq, gender focal point of UNICEF Bangladesh, said that 24 ministries of the government have been given responsibility in implementing the national plan of action, taken to prevent child marriage. But, the implementation rate of this action plan is quite low. Local government institution, especially Union Parishad chairman and members have a vital role to play in stopping child marriage.

Nishath Sultana, deputy director (advocacy) at World Vision Bangladesh said that the elderly and senior members of the family act as catalyst for child marriage. There has to be work on changing their mentality.

Moushumi Sharmin, gender co-ordinator for Concern Worldwide, recommended emphasising on the issue of ensuring safety of girls.

Associate editor of Prothom Alo Abdul Quayum gave the opening speech at the roundtable while assistant editor of Prothom Alo Firoz Choudhury moderated the event.