Did COVID-19 make child marriage in Bangladesh worse?
Lively sounds of celebration and a classically red bride veiled in with blurry vision behind the bridal veil¾marriages maybe made in heaven but, in Bangladesh, for 23 percent of the entire population in 2020, alliances were strategically orchestrated in distressed households by matchmakers and grandmothers. Instead of a beautiful beginning, this context paints marriage as a solution to deal with economic, financial and societal pressures and children as tender as eight years of age become voiceless victims in vermillion chains.
Bangladesh has one of the highest numbers of child marriages in the world, having been ranked in 4th position globally, according to the latest report published by UNICEF, a UN organization to support humanitarian and developmental efforts for children worldwide.
It's true: Bangladesh had been making great strides in reducing the occurrence of child marriage in recent decades and this was no small feat. Impressive progress was underway with the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 being reformed in 2017. It has been illegal for a girl under 18 and a boy under 21 to be wed off since the 1980s and with the new amendments, the focus shifts to preventive measures of contracting, allowing and celebrating child marriage.
The practice itself is less common today as it was in previous generations and great declines have especially been observed in the richest groups of the country. However, more than half of all the young women in Bangladesh today were still married before blowing stepping into their 18th year. About a 100 million girls still faced the risk of the red doom and what's alarming is that these figures are pre-COVID-19.
Now that we are ushering in a new era of recovery, we must face the music and react to the serious threat our hard-won gains are facing. Thanks to the pandemic, 10 million more girls are now at risk of child marriage.
Bangladesh's national target is to end child marriage by 2041 but if the government is keen on keeping its promise, it must pull up its socks and work eight times as hard as it did in the past decade to meet this target. A national Plan of Action to address this cause has already been launched in 2018 and Natalie McCauley, Chief of Child Protection at UNICEF lauds the Bangladeshi government's efforts thus far. However, she advocates for re-energized approaches.
"Society cannot really progress by leaving its children behind. We need to double down and do more for the children of Bangladesh. A greater budget to protect them and empower young girls needs to be allocated and this must not be mistaken for wasted resources. In fact, this will, in time, save the Bangladeshi economy time and money," McCauley argues.
"Early child marriage is harmful for the future well-being of girls. By marrying off children, pressures of premature pregnancy, onset of postpartum health complications, frequency of domestic violence and abuse, higher chances of divorce and increasing numbers of adolescent women and children going under the poverty line are all consequences that will burden the government later on. Measures to then mitigate these manifold consequences will prove to be much more challenging and expensive than investing in nationwide campaigns now to reduce the practice of child marriage," dissects McCauley.
But what are these measures that McCauley talks of?
If you are a member of government reading this story, work towards making marriage registration compulsory for all religions and digitize records so everyone can access them. Make birth registration mandatory and prevent deceitful manipulations of evidentiary documents.
In most cases of child marriage, religious processes are completed and the couple begin a conjugal life before a formal registration. Empty promises are made to register the marriage when the girl turns 18. As a result, if the marriage later ends up in separation, the girl receives no compensation as the court fails to recognize the alliance as valid. And if the young girl bears children, they are left isolated and in poverty.
Sure, you can now say that marrying a girl under 18 is illegal but documentation like birth certificates is needed to make your case. Unfortunately, the process of birth registration still remains inaccessible to many in rural areas and new parents are unaware of the importance of its timely completion. Moreover, such documents are also manipulated to increase a girl's age on paper just so that it is deemed 'legal' for her to marry.
If you are with the law and justice division of Bangladesh, glorify and promote pro bono cases so the marginally-oppressed can dare to raise their voice and call to reform the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 2017.
The legislation is identified to have several vacuums that allow child marriage to fall through the cracks. Under the CMRA, there is no option for annulment of the marriage. A 'special provision' even allows a girl below 18 to marry. Several sections of the law are in direct conflict with the prevailing Muslim laws in matters of marital age and dissolutions. Moreover, greater considerations need to be made in ways that ensure a girl's full, free, informed and non-coerced consent. Even what constitutes as a 'court' is undefined in the CMRA.
If you are affiliated with a non-governmental organization, creating inroads to eradicate child marriage is much easier for you. You can work with community clubs in schools to create enabling dialogue with adolescent girls, parents and teachers. You can empower young girls by raising awareness and offering them diverse options to succeed in life. Universities can be tagged to promote careers in social sciences and social work can be championed. You can also meet with academic deans and suggest bachelor's degrees, certificates and diplomas in various disciplines of sociology so people are free to pursue this in whatever stage of life they are.
But what can you do if you find yourself walking alone in this field of battle? Do not doubt yourself for you can emerge as the single, greatest instrument of change: you can be a social worker.
McCauley reminisces, "I started out as a humble social worker in Australia and look at me now, here at UNICEF! There is a great deal of honour and feeling of self-fulfillment when working to promote social change. Social workers are at the frontline of children's issues. They can create powerful dialogue with mothers, grandmothers and relatives of at-risk children. Families feel safe to talk to a woman, someone who will listen to them, offer solutions without judging."
It is at the grassroots level where the greatest impact can be made and to create visible ripples on the surface, you must start from the ground up. This is where a social worker comes in. Their job is complex and challenging, one that requires critical analysis, empathy and people skills. They work with vulnerable children, families and communities to provide them with necessary assistance in critical situations.
Social workers deserve recognition and badges of honour. They are the unsung heroes of our society and we need more of them. Thousands of jobs are currently vacant at UNICEF and in Bangladesh. If being a social worker is your life's calling, maybe reading this story is the universe's way of conspiring to nudge you towards this field. Who knows?
Regardless, Rabindranath Tagore, the acclaimed Bengali poet and playwright, once expressed that children need "a world whose guiding spirit is personal love." Child marriage is a disgrace of that spirit; it is a violation of human rights. Our children deserve to be free, loved and safe. So, whoever you are, pick up your weapon of choice and put on whatever armour that suits you best. Stand in battle to grant words to the voiceless, educate the illiterate and unlock rusty chains. It's about time wedding bells changed to liberty bells anyway.