The pandemic has increased child marriage manifold
Child marriage has always been a huge obstacle to development for countries like Bangladesh that has one of the highest prevalence of it. Now with the Covid-19 pandemic, the situation is even worse with more parents, because of increased financial hardship due to income loss, getting their minor girls married. According to a Save the Children global report, an estimated 5,00,000 girls (globally) are at risk of being forced into child marriage with as many as one million expected to become pregnant this year. The report reveals that South Asia will be hardest hit with nearly 200,000 more girls at risk of child marriage in 2020. This is in addition to the previously estimated rates of child marriage that anticipated 12 million girls being forced into marriage this year.
For Bangladesh, the implications are ominous. We have already been burdened with the curse of child marriage—over 50 percent of women who are now in their mid 20s were married off before 18, with 18 percent being below 15. The pandemic has increased this number manifold. So where do we go from here?
As a society and as a country we must acknowledge the devastating effects of child marriage on young girls that ultimately affect the wellbeing of the entire society as well as the development goals of the nation. When children are forced to marry they are forced to drop out of school and deprived of their childhood. They face the trauma of forced sexual relations. They endure the health risks associated with early pregnancies that may lead to premature, stunted babies and even their own deaths. The long-term effects of child marriage include generations of girls and young women being denied education, health, the right to work and earn and the agency to escape domestic violence. It will also mean generations of children being malnourished or stunted with little opportunities for education. If they are girl children, the cycle of deprivation and violence will start all over again.
Against this grim backdrop we now have a pandemic that has intensified all the factors behind child marriage—poverty, lack of security of girls and the mindset that girls are a burden for parents. With more girls dropping out of school child marriages have increased extensively.
In terms of combatting child marriage we have not been very successful even before the pandemic. Now that we are confronted with the numbers we must act fast now. The special provision in the Child Marriage Act that allows child marriage "under special circumstances" must be scrapped. Financial incentives, income-generating opportunities can be given to families so that it is not poverty that pushes them to get their girls married off. Most of all the government and society must work together to ensure security of girls and women so that they are not harassed on the streets, subjected to sexual violence and that they can go to school and pursue their dreams. Child marriage is an abusive practice that must be stopped for good.