Fresh perspective needed to end child marriage

ADVOCATES for preventing child marriage, both within the government and in society, are understandably frustrated. Despite the national policy setting 18 as the legal age of marriage for girls, the Child Marriage Restraint Act being passed in 2017, and the adoption of the National Plan of Action to End Child Marriage for 2018–2030, the issue persists. Preventing child marriage is also one of the three key goals of the International Conference on Population and Development’s global population agenda.

Numerous advocacy programmes by the government and NGOs denounce child marriage, and cases where it is prevented often attract media attention. However, societal concern remains high because statistics and evidence indicate that child marriage is still widespread and persistent throughout the country.

The most recent official data from the Bangladesh Sample Vital Statistics for 2023, conducted by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, presents a troubling picture: **41.6 per cent of girls are married under the age of 18**, with **8.2 per cent married before reaching 15 years**. In comparison, in 2020, these figures stood at 31.3 per cent and 4.9 per cent, respectively.

These findings are echoed by the Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey of 2022. A UNICEF report in 2023 revealed that Bangladesh had the highest prevalence of child marriages in South Asia and the eighth highest prevalence in the world.

The UNICEF report says that about **51 per cent of the women in the country are married off before reaching the legal marriage age**. Other South Asian countries are in a better position regarding child marriages. The UNICEF report also said that approximately **34.5 million women in Bangladesh were married before they turned 18**, and over **13 million women were married before they turned 15**.

Not only are the rates of child marriage high, but they are also increasing, contrary to desired goals. Moreover, child marriage contributes to a host of related issues, such as adolescent pregnancy, gender-based violence, school dropout rates and legal complications.

Are our efforts insufficient, or are we overlooking the changing dynamics where legal and social, formal and informal factors clash, leading to unintended and unforeseen consequences? Recent grass-roots consultations conducted by the Power and Participation Research Centre in Gaibandha, Cox’s Bazar, Nilphamari and Rangpur have been enlightening, highlighting factors that are often overlooked in centralised policy discussions.

Consider the registration of child marriages, for instance. While there is acknowledgement of the official age for marriage, marriage registrars — known as quazis — typically refuse to officially register underage marriages. However, a significant pseudo-reality has emerged where various unofficial registration procedures occur, such as notary marriages, fake registrations or registrations in different locations with false age declarations. Couples or their families are often assured that the marriage will be officially recorded once the girl turns 18, but by then, she may already be a mother, divorced or abandoned. Many quazis, especially in rural areas, cite their economic difficulties as a reason for engaging in such practices.

In such situations, girls face two immediate vulnerabilities. First, they are often forced to leave school because prevailing norms within the education system discourage married students in primary or secondary classes. Second, if the husband becomes dissatisfied for any reason, including unmet dowry demands, and expels her, she has little opportunity for legal recourse because the marriage was not ‘officially’ registered.

During a dialogue organised by the PPRC in Cox’s Bazar, two participating judges expressed their frustration with the surreal judicial landscape they encounter in such cases. On the ground, both policy and advocacy efforts seem to overlook these complexities, instead focusing on narrow prioritisation of legal penalties and awareness campaigns that may offer temporary satisfaction but fail to address the root issues.

Extended closures of schools during the Covid outbreak exacerbated existing issues, with limited research exploring the full extent of policy impacts. While attention has been given to learning setbacks and mental health, grass-roots consultations revealed a deeper loss of awareness, particularly regarding girls’ rights, the value of education and civic engagement.

This loss is intensified by the political climate at the local level, which fosters a lack of accountability, impunity and the proliferation of toxic masculinity. Consequently, parental worry about the safety of their daughters is increasingly influential alongside traditional patriarchal norms, driving high rates of child marriage.

Another significant factor, yet to be acknowledged in national policy and advocacy discussions and donor discourse, is the role of adolescents themselves, both boys and girls, empowered by digital technology, in driving child marriage. Insights from grassroots stakeholders at the PPRC’s 2023 regional consultations highlighted how adolescents, with access to technology, are as influential as societal norms in this regard.

A female school principal in Gaibandha noted the widespread practice of ‘bunking’ or skipping classes among adolescents, leading to the proliferation of ‘internet romances’ during their excess free time. While internet-based social interaction may not inherently be concerning, it becomes problematic when it contributes to premature child marriages.

The increasing prevalence of child marriage in 2024, just six years away from the SDG target of 2030, serves as a stark wake-up call. These high rates not only rob girls of their youth but also contribute to rising gender-based violence and the perpetuation of intergenerational poverty through alarming rates of adolescent pregnancy.

There is an urgent need for a re-evaluation of the discourse surrounding child marriage, along with a commitment to addressing specific knowledge gaps through new research. **Bold policy measures**, like mandating secondary education, must be included in policy dialogues. It is essential to engage in honest introspection about how to redirect education away from its current bureaucratic and commercialised state towards becoming a true catalyst for national progress. Ultimately, we must strive to secure a future of quality for both girls and boys.