This blog is part of a series of articles written by University of Dayton students, published as part of Counterpart’s Next Generation in Thought Leadership initiative. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not express the views or opinions of Counterpart International.
Disclaimer: This program/opinion was made possible by the generous support of USAID and FCDO. The data and information presented herein do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or FCDO.
COVID-19 has dramatically altered life for communities around the world. For some facing economic hardship, it has led to the adoption of negative coping mechanisms. In Bangladesh, for example, the practice of early childhood marriage (ECM) has been on the rise over the past year. Like in most countries around the world, many Bangladeshis faced economic hardships because of the pandemic, and have turned to ECM as a means to decrease the financial burden of supporting their children. The pandemic has also exacerbated other push factors into child marriage, such as the girl’s education being put on hold without access to virtual learning and a lack of access to financial resources. As a result, addressing ECM is a timely intervention for civic actors in Bangladesh.
Counterpart manages the five-year USAID and FCDO- funded Promoting Advocacy and Rights activity in Bangladesh. This program works with civic actors to support their advocacy efforts to promote human rights and improve governance. One of the challenges the program has faced has been in organizing events at a time and space that is conducive for those who work or need childcare to attend. With the pandemic, Counterpart adapted its workshops to take place virtually, and provided community members with access to the internet so that men and women could learn how to take an active role in their communities to address issues like ECM.
Child Marriage Persists
Our research looked specifically at the phenomenon of child marriage in Bangladesh during COVID-19. Child marriage is illegal. The Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929, which was passed during the period when Bangladesh was colonized by Great Britain, prohibited childhood marriage. Despite this law, the practice never completely stopped. Moreover, legislature intended to curtail the practice has been criticized for further enabling child marriage. The Bangladesh government passed the Childhood Marriage Restraint Act of 2017, which includes parameters for girls to marry if they are under the age of 18 as long as they have received guardian permission under special circumstances.
However, the law has been poorly enforced. Part of the problem is the law is vague in relation to what a special circumstance would be for a girl to get married. The law does not provide examples of specific circumstances, only that the marriage must be in the child’s best interest. In addition, the punishment for illegal child marriage is defined in Article 5, but is is difficult to understand due to the use of legal terminology. A general lack of community understanding and acceptance of the practice means that the 2017 Childhood Marriage Restraint Act has failed to deter child marriage.
In addition to limited policy enforcement, there are several socio-economic push factors that influence the practice of ECM. In Bangladesh, women and girls are already at a disadvantage in terms of education and job opportunities due to the patriarchal nature of the society. What’s more, the pandemic further restricted their already limited opportunities. Child marriage appears to be a fast and easy solution to the problems that the families and girls are facing, however, it causes great harm in the long run. Girls who marry early have increased health problems relating to pregnancy, lack of knowledge on safe sexual practices, and increased risk of domestic violence and sex trafficking. The challenge for civic actors is in educating communities about these compound risks and addressing the push factors that lead to ECM.
In view of this, we studied the social and economic interventions that Counterpart could support local organizations to utilize in their programs that could help deter child marriage. A critical tool in the fight against child marriage is education for girls. Since the majority of schools have moved instruction online because of the pandemic, it is now important to give girls the tools to participate in distance learning such as tablets, computers, and internet access. Broader community education using creative communication techniques that raise awareness of the negative impacts of child marriage is also extremely important. Finally, it is essential to redress the economic incentives underlying the increase in child marriage. We recommend that the government gives more financial support or other resources, such as access to food, clothing, and materials to families, including the girls and women, who face financial difficulties.
In sum, the fight for women’s equality in Bangladesh has gotten harder during the pandemic. Child marriage is not an issue exclusive to Bangladesh, nor is overall gender inequality. It is likely that the socio-economic push factors that are driving child marriages during the pandemic will lead to an increase in the phenomenon across the world. We recommend that Counterpart work in partnership with Bangladeshi activists to prioritize helping families to keep young girls enrolled in school with direct support that specifically targets the key reasons youth un-enroll, including financial need and access to supplies. Organizations funded by USAID can make an impact by helping to provide more financial support and other resources so girls and their families do not need to consider marriage for sustenance and so that they have the tools needed for remote learning through the duration of COVID-19.