Curbing child marriage in pandemic

Twelve-year-old Yasmin Akhter (not her actual name) was an ordinary schoolgirl, living with her parents in Char Sidhai, a river island in the Brahmaputra, just off the coast of Phulchhari Upazila in eastern Gaibandha.

There, among the other children of the island, she went to an NGO-run school, where she studied in the seventh grade.

For the most part, she was happy spending long hours in school— playing, laughing, and learning with her classmates. 

However, little did she know that her life was about to take an unexpected turn and without warning.

When the pandemic struck last year in March and all schools were shut down, Yasmin’s mother and father, like all typical rural parents, decided that it was best to marry their daughter off. It was a decision they thought appropriate considering the newly arisen uncertainty about their daughter’s future.

After her marriage, Yasmin moved to a distant char far away from home. There, she settled down with her husband and in-laws.

Fast forward to this year. Yasmin is now a full-time homemaker and mother of a baby boy. She spends most of her day busy with household chores and looking after her infant son.

Back in Char Sidhai, her best friend Sophia Akhter was overcome with sadness while narrating Yasmin’s story to journalists who were there on a visit last month.

She said: “Being away from family and friends, Yasmin has fallen into depression.  Besides, she has yet to recover fully after her health largely worsened from having the baby, who has also been suffering from malnourishment since birth.” 

Yasmin, once a spirited child full of possibilities and now faced with the stark realities of life, tells her friends not to make the same mistake as she did—not fighting her parents on the marriage issue.

The rate of child marriage in Bangladesh, especially among char communities, is on an alarming rise as girls are mostly staying home owing to the closure of educational institutions during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Growing concerns regarding joblessness, poverty, food scarcity, and fear and insecurity among parents due to the pandemic are blamed for a surge in child marriages.

Bangladesh is currently among the top 10 countries in the world for child marriage, according to a UN report that said Bangladesh has a 51% child marriage rate.

Experts at “Friendship”, an international Social Purpose Organization working to make quality education accessible even in remote and hard to reach areas, are working to alleviate this crisis which they say might deepen if there is a further delay in the reopening of schools.

Friendship’s activities in Char Sidhai 

Rashida Begum, a facilitator to eighth graders under the “Friendship Education Program” in Char Sidhai, said: “Dropping out of school has terrible consequences for children in rural areas. The girls invariably become victims of child marriage and the boys of child labor. In both cases, the children tend to lose interest in their studies.”

“So, to prevent high school students from dropping out by continuing limited-scale learning activities while schools were closed, we undertook a three-pronged approach.” 

These approaches include 1. Group Study Sessions—where a small group of 4-6 students attends study sessions at a facilitator’s home, 2. Home Visits—where a facilitator makes home visits to convey lessons to students who are not able to attend group study sessions and 3. Phone Communications—where a facilitator calls students who have moved away from the area to follow up on their studies, she added.

“Besides, we also conduct student counseling and parent-teacher meetings at regular intervals to identify potential dropout cases before they take place and take action accordingly,” she added.

Mahabub Alam, assistant project manager (education), said Friendship Education Program was all about sustainability. “Friendship helps meritorious high school students pursue higher studies by helping them get admitted to colleges on the mainland.”

“Besides, students who don’t wish to stay in school after completing their matric and intermediate degrees, receive vocational training on various income-generating activities, such as homestead gardening, livestock rearing or weaving under the same program.”

The challenges

Rafiqul Islam, a facilitator to sixth graders, said the coronavirus pandemic had brought several new challenges in providing education to char children.

“Children here are always on the move as river islands constantly appear and disappear. Children who move are either too far away or find it very difficult, especially during the monsoon, to cross the river on small boats and attend group study sessions here.”

“Besides, it is still somewhat of a trend here to marry off girls at a young age as the older they get the more dowry is required at the time of marriage.”

Sophia Akhter, an eighth-grade student of Friendship Secondary School, said her parents received two marriage proposals when she was in seventh grade. “I was able to talk my way out of the first one, but the second time they were hell-bent on going through with it. However, determined to stay in school, I informed my teacher, who in turn visited my parents along with local public representatives and convinced my parents to stop the marriage.

Many girls who are married off before they turn 18 are made to leave school. This deprives these girls of their right to education and future independence. Child brides are also more likely to experience domestic violence.

Young girls who are married off are more likely to experience early pregnancy and have children while still physically immature, they are at a higher risk of dying from pregnancy and childbirth complications. And their babies have a reduced chance of survival too, according to the World Health Organization.

Child brides who have children may also be psychologically unprepared and ill-equipped to become mothers at such a young age.

The silver lining 

During a visit to the island last month, this reporter found that Friendship’s proactive approaches were proving very useful in keeping high students engaged in learning activities.

By speaking to some of the students, it was clear that they were all aware of the benefits of staying in school and the cost of dropping out.

Mariam Akhter, a sixth-grader under the Friendship Education Program, said she was attending the group study session as she wanted to continue her studies and one day become a doctor and help poor villagers.

“I don’t want to drop out of school as that will mean the end of my dreams,” she said in a voice of determination.  

Her parents along with the majority of other parents in Char Sidhai are now aware of the cost of child marriage and the benefits of education and seemed very happy about the Friendship Education Program.

According to the parents, they were relieved that their children were able to study in small group sessions while schools across the country remained shut.

Jamila Begum, the mother of a sixth-grader, said: “I’m glad my daughter is getting the much-needed tutoring at a time when all schools are closed. This way, she will not miss a beat when she goes back to school when the pandemic situation improves.”

Speaking to Dhaka Tribune, Anwarul Islam, Friendship’s senior regional manager (education), said that the parents’ mentality towards child marriage had largely changed thanks to the tireless efforts of our field supervisors, teachers, facilitators, and other members concerned. 

“Parents now want their children to stay in school so that they may get the chance to contribute to positive societal change and make  the world a better place.”

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