A total of 66 girl students of Alipur Adarsha Girls High School in Satkhira were married off this year during the closure of the school due to coronavirus. At least 50 of them were victims of child marriage.

School authorities, guardians and rights workers said there has been an unprecedented increase in child marriages as educational institutions have remained closed for a long time.

Headmaster of the Alipur girls high school, Md Abdul Latif, went to the school for administrative activities almost every day despite the prolonged closure of the school. He is preparing to reopen the school on 12 September as per government decision. But with such a huge number of girls now married, Latif cannot expect everything to be the same after the school reopens.

Latif, from his prior experience, knows that few of the married girls would be able to resume studies.

Satkhira Sadar upazila nirbahi officer and district education officer, when asked about the matter, said that the committee to prevent child marriage could not work as actively as required due to coronavirus situation.

The officials said they will hold a meeting within a week to decide what to do.

The country is lagging behind the goal of preventing child marriage in times of corona. The goal was to reduce marriage of girls under 15 years of age, to zero within 2021. According to the last survey (multiple indicator cluster surveys-2019) of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) and Unicef, the rate of marriage of under 15 girls in the country is 15.5 per cent. The government has set plans to reduce marriage of 15 to 18-year-old girls to 30 per cent from 51.4 per cent during the survey. But there is no data available on how much was achieved to this end in 2020-21.

According to data provided by the Alipur girls school to Prothom Alo, among the 50 victims of child marriage, 32 are eighth to tenth graders, 14 are tenth graders, 7 are ninth graders and 11 are eighth graders. Another 18 girls who were married off were SSC examinees. The girls are between 14 to 17 years of age, according to the data available at the school.

Another 16 married were over 18 years, the legal age for marriage of girls. The number of students in the school is 470.

Headmaster Abdul Latif said a total of 32 students of the school were married off in 2020.

How did the school authorities learn about these child marriages?

Latif said 47 girls among 68 SSC examinees this year filled up forms for exams while 21 did not. The teachers asked the reason why so many girls did not fill up the form and came know that they were married off secretly. Information about child marriage of 10th, 9th and 8th grader girls were revealed as they did not submit assignments.

The teacher said the families of the girls informed them that the girls were married off and they would not continue their studies.

The headmaster said, two months ago he sent district education officials a list of 47 students who were married. The number has increased in the last two months.

But he also said some of the married girls joined coaching classes conducted by the school. Alipur Purbo Para mosque’s khatib and local kazi (marriage registrar) Md Rezaul Karim is a member of the child marriage prevention committee of Alipur union parishad.

He said as child marriage don’t get registered as that is illegal. Some shops sell fake registration forms illegally. Some moulanas use these fake forms to conduct the marriages.

What do the families say?

The father of a ninth-grader of the school told Prothom Ao that he married his daughter off two months ago. He said his son-in-law owns a car garage and works in a private firm. He said he could not refuse a good proposal for his daughter as he is not wel-off.

Asked if his daughter would continue her studies, he said her in-law’s do not want her to study anymore.

Father of another eighth-grader said he married off his daughter as the proposal was good. He said the daughter did not object to the marriage. The wedding was held at his house and no one protested.

Poverty is not the main reason

Md Sakibur Rahman, head or the administrative committee formed to prevent child marriage, said they came to know about child marriage of 57 girls of the school. He thinks although poverty is often given as a pretext, other factors contribute to child marriage.

Sakibur said he was involved in preventing 1,200 child marriages in the last eight years. Around 100 of these marriages took place due to family poverty.

He said two-thirds of the girls were married off against their will. The girls cannot take any legal measures against their husbands if necessary as those marriages do not have any documents.

Administrative officials surprised

Satkhira district education officer SM Abdullah Al Mamun was surprised to learn about so many child marriages. He told Prothom Alo on Sunday night that he would talk after investigating the matter.

He later told Prothom Alo that he was confirmed about 25 child marriages.

“Even this is a big number. I can’t understand what the committee to prevent child marriage is doing!”

Satkhira Sadar’s UNO Fatema-tuz-Zohra told Prothom Alo, “Alipur union parishad’s chairman informed me that the marriages have increased due to an increase in relationships between boys and girls. But it needs to be investigated whether the number is that much.”

She said a total of 49 child marriages have been prevented in the upazila from January to August this year.

Saying that initiative to prevent early marriage decreased due to coronavirus, the UNO said a meeting would be called within next week to discuss the matter.

* Kalyan Banarjee, Prothom Alo’s staff reporter in Satkhira, contributed to this report.