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Robbed of her childhood

13 December, 2022

Source : Dhaka Tribune

Reading Time: 6 Minutes

13 December, 2022 ·
Source : Dhaka Tribune
· Reading Time: 6 Minutes

Robbed of her childhood

Robbed of her childhood

On August 20, 2022, a desperate call was made to the government of Bangladesh’s emergency hotline, 333. At the other end was Moklesur Rahman, a good samaritan from rural Kurigram in Rangpur district, who had got hold of news that Rabeya, a child of merely 14 years old, was about to be married off.

It was Rabeya’s good fortune that Moklesur cared enough and that the call was made. It was also good fortune that the government ensured that 333 existed and was functional, and that the government officer in charge did his duty when the call came. Rabeya’s marriage was stopped. She will hopefully be able to live out her childhood, as any 14-year-old has the right to do so.

Unfortunately, for thousands of others like her, they are not as fortunate.

It was in March 2021 when Unicef issued the grim warning that, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and its immediate consequences such as long school closures, economic stress, service disruptions, unplanned pregnancies, and of course, significant number of parental deaths, a further 10 million children could be victims of child marriage in this decade.

When it comes to Bangladesh, unfortunately, this nightmare of a scenario is already becoming reality.

“Despite significant progress in recent years, Bangladesh has the fourth highest prevalence of child marriage in the world. Covid-19 compounds the difficulties facing millions of girls. School closures, isolation from friends and support networks, and rising poverty places girls at heightened risk of child marriage,” said Tomoo Hozumi, Unicef Representative in Bangladesh in 2021.

At this point, it appears that the worst of Covid-19 is hopefully behind us. Yet, Bangladesh just like with many developing nations, has seen and continues to see terrible consequences as a result of the pandemic — beyond the thousands of lives lost to the virus.

Bangladesh’s long school closure of about two years has had a devastating impact on its students’ learning; over 40 million students from play-group to tertiary were essentially out of structured education for almost two years, relying only on online education.

At this stage, we are yet to truly come to grips with just how much the impact of the learning loss has been.

But beyond the learning loss, school closures have arguably been the single biggest reason for the spike in child marriage that has been reported, and it is a problem that is perhaps as grave or as damaging to the future of a nation especially a developing country experiencing a demographic dividend like Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has always struggled with child marriage, but due to a myriad of factors directly attributed to Covid-19, this problem has only become worse. A report shared by the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education’s Monitoring and Evaluation wing on August 15 mentioned a shocking 47,414 child marriage incidents during the pandemic period in Bangladesh.

What the government is doing

The Bangladesh government has long been aware of the issues of child marriage, yet it did not always have the means to combat it. This changed when the national helpline 333, inaugurated in 2018, was developed by the government’s flagship digital program, a2i (Aspire to Innovate), and was being used to report child marriage.

The helpline was also off to a fantastic start; as per reports and data collected from a2i, until about the start of the pandemic, around 4,200 calls had been received through 333. This shows that there was progress being made.

Nevertheless, with the Covid-19 pandemic, 333 was repurposed to provide information for Covid related inquiries. Calls for child marriage took a backseat. From over 4,200 calls in 2018 and 2019 it reduced to 1,700 calls in 2020 and 2021.

However, things started looking better in 2022; with Covid having less of an impact on Bangladesh, the government and relevant authorities have once again shifted their focus on issues such as child marriages. This year, more than one thousand calls have already come. While not yet the level of 2018 and 2019, there is more to the data.

The first two years saw an overwhelming number of male callers — 90% of callers were male in 2018 and 2019, and only 10% were female. However, in 2021, 46% of all callers were women, while in 2022, despite the higher numbers, 31% of callers are now women.

Women were now not afraid to call 333 and ask for assistance or report that some child was being married off forcefully. This is important not just for overall women empowerment, but shows that word of this hotline is reaching everyone.

There is plenty of work to be done if Bangladesh is serious about tackling child marriage. With the government’s strong intent and reinvigorating the use of 333 through awareness campaigns, there is hope that more Rabeyas will be able to live out their full childhood.

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