The conventional wisdom suggests that education is the 'gun' to be used against child marriage. Governments in many countries, including Bangladesh, have embarked on a number of programmes to attract girls to schools, and avert dropouts. The critics, however, tend to argue that the success was shining in terms of enrolment in schools, but barely beneficial in terms of reducing the incidence of child marriage.
In a paper on eradication of child marriage in the Commonwealth Countries, Sajeda Amin, M. Niaz Asadullah, Sara Hossain and Zaki Wahhajd, made an attempt to explore whether investment in girls' education is sufficient to eradicate child marriage in the Commonwealth nations. The research question has been developed on the notion that the Commonwealth countries are global hotspots for child marriage. Seven Commonwealth members - Bangladesh, India, Mozambique, Malawi, Nigeria, South Sudan and Uganda - belong to the global list of 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage.
According to estimates provided by the United Nations Human Rights Council, and as cited by the authors of the paper titled "Eradicating Child Marriage in the Commonwealth: Is Investment in Girls' Education Sufficient?", over 140 million girls will be married before their eighteenth birthday over the next decade and almost half of these are in India and Bangladesh. "Therefore, ending child marriage within South Asian countries in the Commonwealth is critical to achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 5.3 (to eliminate child marriage under 18 by 2030) at the global level."
The good news is that most of the governments in Commonwealth countries agree on the serious nature of the problem and some have even formulated national laws prohibiting or penalising child marriage. But laws are laudable only when implemented properly. The concerned countries have much to learn from other efforts at preventing child marriage that go beyond the enactment and enforcement of laws.
The paper notes; "A recent Commonwealth Society report titled 'Preventing Child Marriage in the Commonwealth: The Role of Education' stresses the centrality of education in preventing child marriage. While the report acknowledges that the practice of child marriage is complex and not driven by a single factor, it maintains that 'education is one of the most significant factors for delaying the age at which girls marry' and 'education has proved to have a strong correlation with lower rates of child marriage'. Similarly, a World Bank report notes that girls with no education were six times more likely to enter into a child marriage compared with girls with high school education in 18 of the 20 countries with the highest prevalence of child marriages."
The authors of the paper cite the experience of Bangladesh to demonstrate the limits of investments in education in delaying marriage of girls. Bangladesh has been globally celebrated as a success story of removing gender inequality in primary and secondary education but, at the same time, continues to have the highest prevalence of child marriage in the Commonwealth. The government of Bangladesh adopted nationwide scholarship scheme, the Female Secondary School Assistance Programme (FSSAP) in the 1990s to increase school attendance among the girls. Since the inception of FSSAP, female secondary school enrolment has risen dramatically in Bangladesh - achieving parity with the male enrolment rate. Following its introduction, it became increasingly acceptable for girls in rural Bangladesh to attend secondary school, a practice previously frowned upon in more conservative areas.
Disconcertingly, however, despite these social achievements regarding girls' education, the practice of child marriage remains widely prevalent even today throughout the country. Following the footprints of the FSSAP scheme in Bangladesh, many state governments in India also launched programmes of offering financial incentives to end child marriage by keeping girls in school. However, these schemes did not make a desired or lasting impact on child marriage, the authors reckon. Given the inclusion of child marriage as an important SDG target, it is critical that Commonwealth countries engage in targeted dialogue on the nature of the problem and possible solutions. Investments in schooling, an important entry point, need also to be tied to income-generating skills and to the provision of improved security and safety in public spaces and workplaces. "Safeguarding girls by empowering them with knowledge of their rights and access to remedies, in addition to being a fundamental right, is also instrumental since concerns about safety can prevent girls from accessing opportunities and limits the potential returns on their education."
By and large, it appears that girls' education, as the experience of Bangladesh and Nepal shows, is necessary, but not sufficient, in terms of investment in the lives of girls to address child marriage. "Policy initiatives that focus on just one of these goals at the neglect of others (including adolescent empowerment, the safety of girls and women in public places, ensuring consent at the time of marriage, and community mobilisation around these issues) are likely to fail to have a significant impact on eradicating child marriage." It is, therefore, not provision of education per se that goes to reduce child marriage but improvement in agency-led empowerment by which girls could make a choice in their lives and livelihoods. Let not the choices be constrained by inside and outside influences.
Abdul Bayes is a former Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University.
© 2017 - All Rights with The Financial Express