As many as 13,886 underage girls of this land were married off in just seven months between April and October, 2020. The accelerated rate of child marriage is most likely to have continued in the next few months until now. Whatever gains the country may have achieved over the past decade is sure to be offset by this abnormal increase in early marriage prompted by the various consequences of the pandemic. The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) paints even a more dismal picture of the future of girls in their childhood worldwide. Roughly, 10 million additional child marriages may occur in the next 10 years because of the adverse impact of Covid-19. In effect, negative impact will not only subject the victims to lifelong sufferings but also leave its escalating collateral damage for generations. With one of the high incidences of child marriage, Bangladesh will also be hurt grievously on this score.
Obviously the UNICEF is highly concerned. In the last decade 25 million child marriages could be averted globally, which underscores a 15 per cent decrease in such unwanted matrimonies. Significantly, 650 million girls and women alive today became victims of child marriage and what is still more alarming is that half of those live in Bangladesh, Brazil, Ethiopia, India and Nigeria. Then Bangladesh with 51 per cent of child marriage has the highest rate among the South Asian nations. Quite understandably, the social movement created over the past few years by young girls themselves ---a few of them either had the misfortune of becoming victim of child marriage or somehow averted the curse ---and local organisations with patronage from non-government organisations or UN bodies has its momentum stymied during the pandemic. Poor parents could not help marrying their underage daughters off under pressing circumstances.
However, one of the targets set out under the Sustainable Development Goals was to end the practice of child marriage by 2030. That target is under severe threat now. Of the total child marriages that took place in the seven months, 5,000 were registered with fake certificates in order to avoid punishment. The provision for punishment in case of child marriage during the ultimate testing time of a pandemic of this order can hardly be effective when in normal time it is flouted by a section of people including those responsible for marriage registration. It is a sad tale that even girls aged 10-12 were married off.
Of the many reasons that have compelled poor parents to marry their underage daughters, the prominent ones are closure of school for such a long time, parents' income erosion and insecurity of girl child. In such a situation, regular payment of the monthly stipend girl students received could have acted as a disincentive to their marriage. In fact poor families with schoolgoing girls should have been identified for special assistance like a stimulus package. If about 14,000 families married their underage daughters off, perhaps 25,000-30,000 such families in the country were in a dire need of such assistance. The task of addressing their problem under a programme with involvement of local administration, upazila education office and even NGOs could be easily accomplished. There is still time to undertake such a programme.