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– I recently visited rural areas of Bangladesh amid the COVID-19 pandemic and returned to Dhaka with a new understanding of the impact that COVID-19 is having on child marriage, a harmful practice that is a global challenge. The fundamental shift that I saw was that child marriage, which has typically been encouraged by struggling parents, is now being encouraged by struggling girls. This worrisome trend underscores a new burden of the pandemic on the poor.
Marriage before the age of 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights. Yet UNICEF reported in April that the number of girls married in childhood stands at 12 million per year worldwide.
According to the United Nations Population Fund’s State of the World Population 2020 report, COVID-19 threatens to make even that stunning number worse. The agency estimates that COVID-19 will disrupt efforts to end child marriage, potentially resulting in an additional 13 million child marriages taking place between 2020 and 2030 that could otherwise have been averted.
The challenge is not only the disease but the response to the disease – especially the impact of school closings, which have been in effect nationally since March. The transition from in-school to online learning can easily seem like a mechanical one, but it creates new challenges for remote and poor communities.
What I witnessed in visiting rural communities was girls totally bored and home-bound by school closings. They typically lack Internet access, television, and smartphones. Analog phones are the only readily available means of communication, and too often the parents are not able to maintain any sort of schooling at home.
The girls are home-bound because, unlike the boys, they are generally forbidden by their parents from leaving the home unnecessarily. School closings thus become confining as well as limiting.
All too often the girls whom I saw had a glazed look in their eyes. They saw no future for themselves. Without school, they were deprived of possibilities. The daily effect was crushing. The only escape was child marriage.
The shift to girls pursuing child marriage instead of their parents is a devastating one that could drive the numbers even higher. It could limit the prospects and potential of girls worldwide.
School closings also affect boys, but boys have more to do. They are freer, more mobile, outside more. In some areas, that may increase child labor, drug addiction, and gambling, but boys are not confined as girls are.
The situation is also different in urban areas, where there is greater access to the Internet, television, and smartphones. Internet access has its own liabilities, but it is available for educational purposes.
For girls and women, the response to COVID-19 has other implications, too. Lockdowns have left many men out of work and, therefore, at home during the day, often making demands of one kind or another. The burden on women – to prepare more food, do more cleaning, maintain the home life – only increases. Financial stress creates domestic stress, and the potential for violence grows, especially as husbands demand more money from wives’ families – a major cause of domestic violence.
BRAC is working to prevent child marriages and other forms of violence against women and children and to defend victims of such violence. BRAC’s Community Empowerment Programme supports Polli Shomaj, the community-based women’s groups that are active in 54 out of 64 districts in Bangladesh in combating gender-based violence. BRAC also operates 410 Legal Aid Clinics, whose cases typically involve gender-based violence. But for prevention to be maximized a cultural shift is needed.
Men and women are equal in Bangladesh’s Constitution and law, but not in its culture. And with 3 million cases backlogged in the court system, the law has limited effect.
Bringing about that cultural shift requires economic empowerment alongside social empowerment for girls and women. It requires life skills for negotiation, partnering in decision-making, and goal setting, among other things. It necessitates occupational skills training to enable girls and women to connect with the job market and to earn their own income. It also requires microfinance so that women can get loans, and mentoring so that women can see a future that they can impact.
Fortunately, BRAC has those tools in place. BRAC Microfinance has 7.1 million clients, 87% of whom are women. BRAC’s Skills Development Programme has equipped 84,581 people with training and knowledge needed for employment, and 83% of those learners – 50% of whom are women – secured jobs after graduation. Together these tools create a comprehensive package that can enable girls and women to see a vibrant future and escape gender-based violence.
But the scale of the problem is greater still. According to a 2015 survey by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics and the United Nations Population Fund, more than 70 percent of married women or girls in Bangladesh have faced some form of intimate partner abuse; about half of whom say their partners have physically assaulted them. And the problem is global.
COVID-19 has revealed that girls and women need to be able to see a future of opportunity for themselves. In combating COVID-19, the world must awaken to this revelation. COVID-19 should now become the catalyst for the world to make possible a future of opportunity for girls and women – a future without gender-based violence.
The author is a Programme Manager in the Community Empowerment Programme at BRAC, one of the largest nongovernmental organizations in the world.