The Daily Star and NETZ in partnership with WE CAN and DASCOH Foundation organised an online discussion titled "Strengthened Civil Society Protects and Promotes Women's Rights" on April 24, 2021. Here we publish a summary of the discussion.
Dr Max Stille, Executive Director, NETZ
There are various factors contributing to this increase in domestic violence and child marriage; one of them being the loss of income in most families which has caused a state of uncertainty for the families.
Although the pandemic has put hurdles in our paths, the Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) are actually working twice as hard now to cope.
Sara Khatun, Programme Manager, NETZ
Our project began in 2018 with an aim to actively enhance protection of human rights and farther democratisation in Bangladesh. The expected result of this project is to capacitate the local and regional CSOs to enhance their operational space and prevent gender-based violence (GBV) and promote women's rights.
Bangladesh has various laws preventing child marriages but there is no implementation. Furthermore, there are gaps present within the laws themselves.
Through this project, we have organised regular dialogues with 1600 representatives from 44 public authorities and local elected bodies; trainings have been provided to 160 marriage registrars and 40 female police officers on Child Marriage Restraint Act (CMRA) and Domestic Violence Protection Act (DVA). So far, 1501 GBV cases were reported by the CSOs and addressed with combined initiatives and at least 300 child marriages have been successfully stopped.
We have made 13,000 students aware of gender and rights issues. 660 girls received self-defence training and cascaded that skill to 2,000 girls in their community. Girls and boys have prepared 96 harassment maps to stop GBV at public places in their locality and addressed those with teachers and their local government.
Mohammad Golam Sarwar, Assistant Professor, Department of Law, University of Dhaka
In order to prevent incidences of child marriage, our CSOs need to identify their particular role in preventing child marriages. Our study first looked at how effective the best practices of prevention have been. We also assessed the roles of the local government in this prevention.
In the context of Bangladesh, women are usually looked at as being a vulnerable entity and this is reflected in our various literatures as well. We tend to ignore the inherent strength present in women. In our study, we have tried to utilise this inherent strength of women to prevent child marriages.
CSOs can indirectly help in preventing child marriages through mobilisation of the local resources. CSOs can also help in implementation of the legal aid services provided by the government. Another role of CSOs lie in the prevention of notary public marriages which are actually illegal.
In order to fully prevent child marriages, we must get rid of our patriarchal mindset and the only way we can do so is through the empowerment of women.
Sultana Yasmin, CSO member, Ishwardi
We stopped two child marriages during this pandemic. But, only one of them was fully successful while the other one was carried out in secret even after our interjection.
WE CAN has massively helped us increases our awareness about child marriages and its prevention.
Munira Begum, CSO member, DASCOH Foundation, Chapainawabganj
In our area, child marriages have been rampant in the past. I have carried out meetings in my area to raise community awareness. Personally, being a part of DASCOH Foundation, I have come to learn more about the legal proceedings as well in helping prevent child marriages.
Imdadul Haque Rana, UP Chairman, Sara Union
Child marriage is not a common occurrence in my area. We have ensured that our marriage registrars are aware of the issues of child marriages and prevent it from happening. We also instruct our locals to let the officials know if they receive wind of any occurrence of child marriage.
In one instance, the head teacher from a local school informed us of a ninth grader in their school getting married. Our people immediately contacted the police and with other women's organisation members, we interjected the wedding. Unfortunately, we later received news that the girl was still forced to marry three months after this event. Even then, we still went to the family and tried to explain to them the harmful effects associated with child marriages.
Girls used to be married off at the age of 13 or 14, but now the age has risen to above 17. This shows progress.
If we can present the negative impacts of child marriage to the general population and effectively explain why it needs to end, our cause will be successful.
Provati Mahato, Upazila Women's Affairs Officer, Nachole
Whenever we receive intel about child marriage from our citizens' alliance or external messengers, we try to stop the union with the help of the Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) and the police officer in charge (OC). If the parents seem hesitant to oblige, we make them sign a recognisance stating that if they try to marry off their children before the age of 18, they will be jailed.
The child marriage rate rose slightly during the COVID-19 crisis but has decreased since. The district administration has held numerous assemblies with people linked to child marriage issues, starting from the grassroots level up to the district level.
Md Nazmul Hamid Reza, UNO, Porsha
The child marriage rate in the Porsha Upazila rate has drastically decreased in the past two years due to people gaining more knowledge on the adverse effects of child marriage and more robust law enforcement. Anyone trying to organise a child marriage faces resistance from local people or law enforcement. However, the guardians sometimes discreetly continue the wedding at a different location. The local people and CSOs play an essential role in alerting us about where and when child marriages occur. Sometimes, the administration doesn't even need to intervene because the local people successfully stop the union.
Shamima Begum, Joint Commissioner (Transport), DMP
Women facing harassment or violence or girls being forced into child marriage should immediately call 999. An online general diary (GD) can now be filed at any police station. The DMP's new service desk for women, children, senior citizens and people with disabilities can be found at every police station. Every Police Super Office has women support desks. There are victim support centres in seven divisional cities and Rangamati. Police Cyber Support for Women (PCSW) is a special desk at the Police Headquarters for cybercrime support. There are apps like the BD Police Helpline and DMP Hello CT that can help.
Sheepa Hafiza, Gender Specialist
A study showed that girls received support regarding child marriage from local committees, CSOs and NGOs, not government committees. However, if our state instruments are not strengthened, civil society can't do much.
During the pandemic, a disproportionate number of women who are sole providers of their families have faced job losses. Thinking there would be one less mouth to feed, these families decide to marry their young daughters off. However, child marriage is not beneficial to either party. The girls are not ready for marriage and eventually return home with their children, ultimately increasing the number of mouths to feed.
Halima Tus Sadia, Convener, Student Forum, Shishu Bohumukhi High School
I joined my school's student forum three years ago and have learned so much about women's rights and safety, child marriage, violence against women, and other essential topics. Our work at the forum has helped both my community and me.
Akramul Haque, CEO, DASCOH Foundation
CMRA that was gazetted in 2017 was included in mobile courts. A set of rules have been issued to implement the law in 2018. Sections five, six, seven, eight, nine, and eleven of CMRA have been included in the mobile court but not section 18. Section 18 states that if a complaint is not filed within two years of any crime committed under this law, the court will not accept the complaint. This means that, even after two years have passed since a child marriage, a complaint can be filed. Therefore, this section should be included in the mobile courts.
Jinat Ara Haque, Executive Coordinator, We Can Campaign
Do we recognise women's rights as human rights? Our society has not accepted the fact that child marriages go against women's rights. Child marriage can only be stopped if people understand that it is an atrocious crime.
Two kinds of marriage laws exist in the country: sharia law and state law. State law can't be used to annul a marriage under sharia law. These marriages also don't require proper documentation. This is why women affected by sharia law marriages can't be given any help under state law. This is a significant issue.
Meghna Guhathakurta, Executive Director, Research Initiatives Bangladesh (RIB)
The dropout rate of girls compared to boys is now lower. Since girls are receiving more incentive from the state to continue education, they are not dropping out. However, boys are being forced to leave education to find jobs. If this is true, then there is a financial crisis. Many studies have shown that the Dowry Prohibition Act does not work. Hence, marriage has become an economic transaction by transferring women's property and capital to men as dowry and this has led to increased domestic violence according to government statistics.
Child marriage can be of two types. One type results from the pressure inflicted by family members. But, there is another type, where young boys and girls meet each other through various social media platforms and then due to lack of awareness of the harmful effects of child marriage, they decide to elope.
Sadeka Halim, Professor, Dhaka University
In our patriarchal society, we still view women as a burden. That is where the problem lies. To this day, especially in villages, births of girls are not looked at as occasions for celebration.
Globally, Bangladesh comes fourth in terms of prevalence of child marriages. According to a UNICEF report, 50 percent of girls in their 20's have gotten married below the age of 18. Poverty is the root cause of child marriage. The drop in income resulting from the pandemic is surely the key driver for the recent rise in child marriages. Religious fundamentalists stand as another hurdle upholding the inequality of our society.
Selina Ahmed, Programme Head, Gender Justice and Diversity, BRAC
Multi-stakeholders engagement is just as necessary as multi-sectorial intervention. We need to ensure there is no unhealthy competition among the various stakeholders working for this cause. Involving men for this cause is very necessary.
There is no alternative to community-based protection mechanism in order to prevent child marriages. We need to holistically look at the whole socialisation process.
Sharmin Islam, Gender Analyst, UNDP, Bangladesh
Very recently, UNICEF has conducted a mapping where we can see that around 64 organisations are working to prevent child marriages. Coordination among all these organisations is vital.
There are hotlines that provide help for these issues but due to a lack of digital literacy and digital divide, we are unable to ensure that all the necessary information is disseminated equally throughout the population. Studies have shown that women's access to digital devices is very limited. As a result, the women for whom these helplines might be necessary remain unaware of the existing resources and cannot seek help.
Laila Jasmin Banu, Programme Manager, Governance and Human Rights of the Delegation of the EU
Dealing with GBV is an important issue for the EU. DASCOH Foundation CSO members have prevented child marriages in their areas by marking houses with girls that may be vulnerable to fall victims of child marriage. The CSO members have then regularly followed up with such families and successfully prevented them from marrying their girls off early. This practice needs to be disseminated to other districts in Bangladesh as well.
We need to appreciate the works of the various CSO members as most of them carry out such work voluntarily and we need to strengthen them further since CSOs are the ones who are fully aware of what is actually going on in their localities; much more so than the local government.
Dr. Abul Hossain, National Consultant, UNDP and Former Project Director, Multi Sectoral Programme on Violence Against Women (VAW), Ministry of Women and Children's Affairs (MoWCA)
The DVA has been around since 2010. Why have CSOs and local government still been unable to raise proper awareness about this law? Educational institutes also have a role to play in raising awareness among their students.
The project operated on four districts and will end in six days after this discussion. Will the good practices remain and what about the other 60 districts? We need to coordinate with the NGOs in the other districts and disseminate the information regarding the good practices that were found from this study. We must ensure that the findings from this study do not get lost and remain in practice.
When we are interjecting a child marriage, just calling the local police and putting a stop to it is not enough. We must get to the root cause of the marriage and address it.
Sultana Kamal, Former Advisor and Renowned Human Rights Activist
We have been discussing about strengthening our CSOs. But, who will strengthen them and what constitutes a CSO? The point of a girl's safety keeps coming up where we say that parents tend to marry of their daughters early for their safety. But, has there been any statistics proving this point? Do these victims of child marriages not face any safety issues related to harassment and domestic violence afterwards?
The root cause really is that parents and society themselves are reluctant to take responsibility of girls. Hence, they feel that marrying them off would get rid of this responsibility from their shoulders.
Various religious fundamentalists are regularly spewing misogynist speeches but we never try and restrain them while in the same breath we make lives difficult for the CSOs who are actually working for the cause of women empowerment. We cannot say that we want equality for women and also let these religious fundamentalists spew hatred towards women at the same time.
Aroma Datta, Hon'ble Member of Parliament
Sustainability is an issue when it comes to these projects. Without continuity of the practices, there are never significant impacts.
My question is, why is the work of NGOs restricted to these time-based projects? We need to depart from such practices. From my own experiences, projects in general have not been able to bring about any actual empowerment for women; the social change that we are looking for needs to start at our own homes.
Shahidul Islam, Director, NETZ
Although our project is going to end, I would request our CSO members to continue their good work for their community. These people have worked even in the middle of the pandemic risking a lot.
Shamsuddoza Sajen, Editor, Commercial Supplements, The Daily Star
Before COVID-19 had hit our country, Bangladesh had made significant progresses in their road to eradicating violence against women and child marriages.
But, the pandemic not only deterred our progressed but also pushed it back to square one. According to a UNICEF study, around one crore girl children are at risk of falling victim to a child marriage.
- Direct the Women and Children Prevention Tribunal/ Chief Judicial Magistrate Court/ Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Court to accept and hear complaints virtually due to the COVID-19 situation
- Demand functioning of the CMRA committees in different layers and DVA in regional and national level policy dialogues with public authorities and CS actor
- Accommodate the roles of the CSOs into our legal and policy and measures
- Organise the youth and empower them
- Introduce One Stop Crisis centres in every police station
- Identify the root causes of child marriage and GBV
- Increase digital literacy and bridge the digital divide existing between men and women
- Prepare an Action Plan for strengthening CSOs
- Incorporate educational institutes into the cause for raising awareness about child marriages and GBV
- Ensure religious fundamentalists groups do not instil misogynist ideas to the publi