As schools start, authorities find thousands of girls missing as they have tied nuptial knots during lockdown.
As the schools are reopening in Bangladesh after one-and-a-half years, authorities are noticing the absence of thousands of girls, as they have tied nuptial knots during the COVID-19-related lockdown period.
Asma (not her real name), a 14-year-old girl hailing from northern Rangpur district, is among those thousands who got married last week to a man twice her age.
Her father, Shirajul Islam, 56 and a small trader, said he had no money left to support four family members. He married off his two daughters during the lockdown.
Though Bangladesh ranks fourth in the world in child marriages, the situation in the Southeast Asian country has taken on epidemic proportions during the pandemic.
Under the law, marriage before the age of 18 for girls and 21 for boys is prohibited. Still, the country is home to 38 million child brides who were married before their 18th birthday, including 13 million who married before the age of 15, according to UNICEF.
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Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Kurigram District Education Officer Md Shamsul Alam said 2,925 child marriages have been reported in his district during the lockdown. Out of those, as many as 1,290 were students of religious schools called madrassas.
"Kurigram is a poverty-driven district with 54% of the people living in extreme poverty. And not only girls, but boys have also become the victims of child marriage. Poverty and the poor status of the social structure are blamed for the situation," said the official.
In the southwestern Bagerhat district, officials have reported 3,200 child marriages while schools were closed.
"We cannot stop child marriage by force as guardians are doing it secretly and villagers do not stand as an eyewitness to take legal action," said Md Kamruzzaman, a district education officer, while quoting the field report.
The district, being one of the tourist hubs, witnessed huge income cuts during the nationwide lockdown, rendering many families jobless and poorer.
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The official said that the law that bars married girls from receiving government stipends needs to be reviewed in view of the wave of child marriages reported during the lockdown.
Sanzida Akhter, an associate professor at Dhaka University, described the situation as alarming.
"There are several issues behind such a rise, including social and financial safety and the security of families. And, Bangladesh will have to bear the cost of it (rise in child marriage) as it is linked to the women's reproductive health, their education, skill development, and employment," she told Anadolu Agency.
She also urged for a policy to bring back married girls to school so they can continue their education.
Lilun Nahar, a monitoring and evaluation director at the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education, said there had been no change in the school dropout rates. She said all married students do not necessarily stop coming to school.
Md. Sayedul Islam, a secretary at the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, expressed the need to conduct a complete field study to know the situation in detail. He said the data available so far suggests that ninth and 10th-grade students are the worst victims of child marriage. He said low mobility and closure of schools during the pandemic could have been causes for the parents to tie the nuptial knots of their children.
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"We are working so hard to reduce child marriage. We have a law and strict monitoring system at the field level. We stopped child marriages in many areas but those have not been reported properly," he added.