Informal labour markets must be safer for girls and women
During the pandemic, UNICEF reported on how an additional 10 million more girls were pushed into the risk of child marriage. In Bangladesh, at least 11,000 school children were married off by their families between March 17, 2020, and September 12 this year, according to data gathered by The Daily Star from different districts. Child marriage is internationally recognised in law as a form of gender-based violence—it puts children at increased risk of sexual, physical, and psychological violence and related outcomes throughout their lives. Girls pushed into child marriages are even less likely to ever earn an income and have any of the tools necessary to escape from any violent situations they are trapped in, especially since there is definitely a positive correlation between child marriage and school dropouts.
One good pathway to alternative learning is technical vocational training, where girls can remain in labour markets. According to research conducted by the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, this can result in a 62 percent reduction in child marriage, especially if they start the training as early as 14 years and join informal workforces at 15. Parents from poor families see employed daughters as less of a burden and allow them to remain at home, as they are earning members of the family.
However, major challenges remain for many young girls in Bangladesh who are trying to enter into labour markets and establish their independence, yet face high risks of violence. The following story of Joanna (not her real name) will perhaps shed light on this reality.
Joanna's mother left her and three of her siblings with their maternal aunt to work in the Middle East. Her father remarried and refused take any responsibility for his children. Joanna dropped out when she was in Class 5, and was helping around at home. She was told to join a workshop where she would learn how to sew so that she could also start earning for the family at the age of 15. At first, Joanna's employer was good to her. But soon enough, he realised that her parents were not around. He understood her vulnerability and lured her into staying longer hours. One day, he raped her, thinking that this incident would not be taken seriously. However, when Joanna was raped multiple times, she stopped going to the shop and informed her friend in confidence, who was volunteering for an NGO.
When her friend went and spoke to her family, the aunt, along with both her parents, wanted this matter to remain a secret. No one encouraged her to speak up. However, her friend insisted she protest against the crime, and Joanna eventually agreed to go to the police. She was taken to a One Stop Crisis Centre and it was proven that she was raped. Her employer was arrested by the police and she was sent to a government shelter home under the Department of Social Service (DSS). While there, she told an NGO worker that she no longer wants to go back to her home and community, since she knew she would be blamed and socially excluded.
Joanna's father, who was missing from her life for many years, suddenly came back after the case was filed. The perpetrator's family reached out to him and offered money to dismiss the case. He went to the DSS and asked for his daughter's custody, which he was entitled to claim. However, he could not dismiss the case, since criminal cases cannot be withdrawn, but he did stop Joanna from attending the hearing. He changed his phone number and shifted to a new place to avoid the case.
This is often the case for thousands of girls in Bangladesh. A holistic approach needs to be taken if the government wants more girls to grow up to become educated and join the labour force, like in competing countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam. As over 85 percent of people in Bangladesh work in the informal sector, labour market participation for vulnerable girls like Joanna usually starts in the informal markets. But if these informal labour markets remain hostile, girls will not have a shot at working and making their own choices at all. As such, local markets and the employment environment have to be safe spaces for women and girls, maintaining basic workplace rights and ensuring protection.
A wider support services network can be achieved if joint efforts by the government and local civil society organisations and NGOs are made for ensuring witness protection services and shelter facilities to survivors and their families, who play significant roles in court cases. Often, witnesses and survivors are intimidated and threatened, which results in cases being dropped or influenced. Rigorous psychosocial support needs to be provided to these survivors, continuous legal counseling must be ensured, and the government needs to control out-of-court mediations that are very common in Bangladesh, especially in rural areas. To do this, local government bodies and community leaders need to be sensitised. Government initiatives need to be taken to expedite court proceedings, as long and tedious court hearings only delay access to justice.
Lastly, not only girls but men and boys also have to be sensitised to understand that if women in households become economically solvent, then that is beneficial for their family income. The Joannas of Bangladesh need an environment of support and justice, not hostility, in communities and markets, in order to improve their lives and increase labour market participation.
Jenefa Jabbar is Barrister-at-law, advocate at Supreme Court of Bangladesh and Director Social Compliance and Safeguarding at BRAC. Tasmiah T Rahman is Head of the Skills Development Programme at BRAC.