I can't stop thinking about Lovely—the 14-year-old adolescent girl who used to work at our house and became a full-time companion of my four-year-old son. She first came to our house with her aunt in search of a livelihood. Hailing from a disadvantaged family in Mymensingh, Lovely studied till grade IV and then was sent to the city by her parents to earn a living.
The first thing I noticed about her was that she was a fast learner. She had the ability to learn anything in the shortest possible time—be it a new Bangla word or the name of a particular toy car my son used to play with. When Covid-19 first broke out here, all my family members struggled to get used to the basic rules, such as wearing a mask or frequent hand washing. She was the only one who never forgot to wash her hands at any slightest possibility of being exposed to an outside object.
She left our house for her village home two months ago. A week after she left, I called Lovely's mother to find out how she was doing—now that she was with her family, but her mother didn't answer my calls. Then I called her aunt just to learn that Lovely was already married off to a construction worker in her village. Her aunt also told me that the decision was taken overnight by her father and grandfather. Lovely was forced into marriage.
When we look at the available data on child marriage in the country, all the tall talk about ensuring the rights of our girls—creating equal opportunities for them and ending all forms of discriminations faced by them—seem like mere words which, in reality, never translate into action.
So, what has changed after so many years of social campaigning and efforts to rid our society of child marriage? How much progress have we actually made? According to a Unicef report published in 2018, the rate of child marriage increased in Bangladesh despite a drop worldwide and the rate in Bangladesh was the highest in South Asia. Also, a 2019 UNFPA report found that 59 percent of all the marriages that took place in Bangladesh between 2006 and 2017 involved brides below the age of 18. Clearly, child marriage is much more prevalent in our society than we imagine.
And the situation has further worsened during the pandemic, as some studies have found. According to Manusher Jonno Foundation's monthly telephonic survey report, as many as 462 girls fell victim to child marriage only in June this year, while a total of 170 child marriages took place across the country in May.
Understandably, the economic fallout of the pandemic has hit the poorest the hardest and during this time, many families have married off their girls while sending their boys to work. Educationists have predicted that when the time will come to send their children to school, these poverty-stricken families will send their boys rather than their girls.
Apart from poverty, there are many other socioeconomic factors that lead to child marriage. The constant fear among parents, both in urban and rural areas, about the safety and security of their daughters often force them to marry off their girls at an early age. However, what these parents do not consider or are not aware of is the fact that marriage at such a young age makes their daughters even more vulnerable. It is not only that early marriage brings early pregnancy and more maternal deaths, girls married at a young age can hardly raise their voice against any injustices done to them by their husbands and in-laws. Teenage brides are even more vulnerable to all types of torture and harassment by their in-laws. The parents who prefer early marriage for their daughters are just not aware that their daughters' only chance to get a better life could be achieved through empowering them with education. Then the question is, why have we failed to make the parents understand this basic fact despite our decades-long awareness programmes?
During her stay at our house, I found that Lovely was very good at her studies. While government surveys found that a vast majority of our children cannot read and write Bangla properly and do simple mathematical calculations even after completing primary education, Lovely, who only studied till Grade IV in a village school, could rapidly read Bangla books and newspapers and do some basic maths without much difficulty. Who knows how far she could have gone if her right to education was not snatched away from her and she was not forced into marriage at the age of 14?
Lovely represents the vast majority of rural Bangladeshi girls who never feel empowered to raise their voices for their rights, and are often forced into marriage at an early age.
But for how long will we let our girls suffer in silence because of this social evil? It is time we translate our words into action and gear up efforts to save our girls from the curse of child marriage. We seriously need to ponder over the reasons why Bangladesh is doing so badly in reducing child marriage while other South Asian countries are showing a lot of progress here.
While awareness campaigns against early marriage need to be conducted efficiently, we also need to ensure that our girls are not harassed or killed by their stalkers while going to school or elsewhere. It is the government's responsibility to ensure safety and security of our girls so that parents feel encouraged to send their daughters to school instead of marrying them off as a solution to harassment.
What we also need is a strong law that would act as a deterrent against this social evil. The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 2017, in its current form, cannot help much since a special provision was included in the Act allowing parents or guardians to marry off their children earlier by obtaining a court order, although according to the law, the minimum age for marriage for men and women are 21 and 18 respectively. The government must scrap this special provision if it is sincere about ending child marriage and ensuring equal rights and opportunities for our girls. Forming a monitoring cell with the participation of the government, civil society, judiciary and child representatives to monitor proper implementation of the Act, as the organisations working with child rights demanded when the Act was passed, should also be considered.
As we celebrate National Girl Child Day today, let us renew our pledge to end child marriage once and for all, and create an environment where our girls can grow up safely and reach their full potential.
Naznin Tithi is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.