Child marriage increases in fear of poverty, insecurity

Shahnaz Huda is a professor of law at the University of Dhaka. Child marriage was part of her PhD thesis on Bangladesh's marriage laws. She worked at the grassroots during the formulation of the Child Marriage Restraint Act in 2017. Shahnaz Huda talked to Prothom Alo senior correspondent Naznin Akhter about the rising trend of child marriage during coronavirus pandemic and other issues.

Shahnaz Huda

Q :

Prothom Alo carried a report on 7 September about a school in Satkhira where 50 child marriages took place in just one year. Is this signaling bigger challenges ahead in attaining women’s education and equality?

Child marriage is a big challenge in the country even during normal times. I began my research in 1992 and the social mindsets on child marriage of that period still exist. Now, prevention of child marriage faces big challenges because of rise in violence and sexual harassment against women. The coronavirus pandemic has increased this challenge. From the Satkhira school incident it is evident that no problems related to child marriage have been solved. It is obvious that the child marriage issue during this pandemic has raised several specific challenges for women’s education and equality.

Q :

Several NGOs conducted surveys on child marriage at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. A study by Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) found 13,886 child marriages taking place in April-October last year with, on average, 1,983 child marriages a month. What are the reasons behind increased child marriage during Covid-19?

Since poverty has increased during the pandemic, the marriage of a girl means decreasing a member from the family, thus reducing family expenses. Family violence has risen during the pandemic. In addition, there is fear about a girl losing her ‘honour’ or the family losing their 'dignity' because of her. Parents fear a girl may become victim of rape, may get coerced into a relationship and then not get justice. And circumstances created through the expansion of social media have also stepped up their fear. Child marriage has increased from the fear of poverty and insecurity during this period. The closure of schools for one-and-a-half year is said to be one of the main reasons to contribute to the growing incidence of child marriage, but I am not certain about this.

Q :

What are the other challenges ahead regarding women’s education and equality?

Families with a tendency towards child marriage do not want to invest in girls’ education. They consider a daughter as a 'temporary guest'. Government stipends are helping girls receive an education. But at one stage, dowry starts dominating over the stipend. It is often heard in villages if a girl is married off at an early age, there will be no need for dowry. The dowry increases with age. But there are many incidents of girls being sent back from their in-law's to their fathers' homes for dowry. Girls face challenges from their brothers when it comes to equal rights to property, on the pretext of giving dowry during marriage. These obstacles to women's achievements are interlinked with each other. The obstacles that are set up along the way, from child marriage to education and equality, remain a big challenge to establishing the human rights of a woman throughout her life.

Q :

The parliamentary standing committee on the women and children affairs ministry said 231 child marriages took place across the country in March to June last year. Why is there a sharp difference between the government and the non-government figures?

There is doubt as whether the method that the government follows to collect data on child marriage brings out accurate information. The union parishad will have the primary data on child marriage but the correct data does not come from there. Union parishad chairmen are the heads of the government's child marriage prevention committees at the union level. They are busy with so many things. They have a lot of responsibilities and little manpower. Chairmen often do not prevent child marriage in case it affects their votes. There is an allocation for district and upazila child marriage prevention committees but nothing for the union level committees. The actual scenario on child marriage is not revealed because of these barriers.

Q :

According to the Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey (BDHS) 2017-18, around 59 per cent of women aged 20-24 years were married before they turned 18. And 28 per cent of the women conceive children between 15 to 19 year of age. So, are population growth, women's reproductive health, maternal mortality, neonatal deaths, women’s education, development and social capability trapped in a vicious circle along with child marriage?

These in fact continue in a vicious circle along with child marriage. If the girl is married at an early age she does not have rights to decide on becoming mother or not. She bears a child immediately after the marriage. There are not enough gaps between bearing children. Childbearing continues in many families until and unless a boy is born. As a result, a girl faces higher risk giving birth to more children. It increases the population and women's reproductive health is at risk. It raises the risk of child mortality and stunted children. As child marriage ends a girl’s education and her social capabilities do not develop either.

Q :

The Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017 calls for the formation of a child marriage prevention committee comprising eminent individuals from the national to to the union level. But the child marriage prevention committee of Alipur union in Satkhira said they have no knowledge of the matter. Satkhira district education officer and Sadar upazila nirbahi officer, too, were surprised that a single school saw 50 child marriages, though they found it to be true later. Why do such shortcomings and negligence persist?

Child marriage is a criminal offence as per the Child Marriage Restraint Act. The local administration will have to take initiative to raise awareness among the people about the drawbacks of child marriage as well as the related laws and punishment. Concerned people at the union, upazila and district levels are involved in many activities. As a result, there is not enough manpower and capacity to give due attention to monitoring the prevention of child marriage.

Q :

The parliamentary standing committee on women and children affairs ministry at its meeting recommended a survey on the increase in child marriage, stating child marriage is on the rise because many underage girls are eloping. And this news appeared on 25 August. But a 2014 survey by MJF found only 6 per cent girls have consent to their marriage or elope. If the policymakers hold such a prejudiced concept, how will our fight against child marriage be successful?

Such statements about the reason behind the rise of child marriage can only be made if there is ample evidence. Whether girls elope or parents marry them off – it is still child marriage. The answer is same – the reason of child marriage is not being eradicated. The government should carry out a survey on child marriage and formulate a plan based on accurate data otherwise no efforts to this end will be successful. The law calls for punishment of the marriage registrar and parents in case of child marriage. If the girl and the boy are minors, they are to be kept at the juvenile correction centre. All this must be enforced properly.

Q :

The special provision of the Child Marriage Restraint Act states if an underaged girl is married off with the consent of her parents or guardians or with an order of the court under any special circumstances, it will not be considered as an offence of child marriage. Does such provision not create the opportunity to misuse the law?

The special provision has not been clarified properly. As per the provision, a girl under 18 years can only be married if a court order is obtained. But the wrong message was given out that girls can be married at early age. If permission is sought on such a marriage, the court will send the matter to the review committee for verification. The upazila nirbahi officer will be the head of the committee. Besides, according to the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2018, if a girl under 18 years becomes a victim of rape or abduction or is forced into marriage or forced to have physical relations, she must not be married to the rapist or her abductor. There is a doubt over how much of this message people are getting. The review committee should look into whether the appeal is made to the court or not, then the misuse of the law will be clear. There is doubt whether parents want to file such an appeal in the court due to the hassle involved. Instead, they think it is easier just to marry off the girl secretly.

Q :

The National Plan of Action (NPA) declared by the government in 2018, sets a goal to end the marriage of girls aged below 15 years and to reduce by one third the rate of marriage for girls aged 18 years in 2021, and to completely eliminate child marriage by 2041. How much of this goal has been fulfilled?

Meeting this goal will not possible in the current situation. Confidence will have to be instilled in the people, addressing the concern to protect the ‘virtue’ of the girls and the ‘dignity’ of the family. If it is not ensured, then child marriage cannot be prevented for long by pressuring parents. The decision must not be imposed upon parents with the aim to fulfil the target of the sustainable development goals only. The commitment made at an international level to reduce of violence against women will also have to be implemented.

Q :

What should our new goal be now? And what steps should we take to fulfill that goal?

Social change is a must. The conventional mindset of a patriarchal social system still exists. Many women haven't been able to shake this off either. There is no scope for complacence simply because of the growing participation of women in various development activities. Social safety nets will have to be increased. Sexual harassment will have to be stopped through strong enforcement of laws. Confidence in getting justice will have to be created and the process will have to be made easy. A plan of action will have to be taken up to prevent child marriage, keeping disasters like the coronavirus pandemic in mind. Most importantly, social awareness will have to be increased to ensure girls' self-reliance.

Q :

Thank you.

Thank you too.

This interview appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna