DHAKA, Bangladesh, December 21 (IPS) – I recently visited rural areas of Bangladesh amid the COVID-19 pandemic and returned to Dhaka with a new understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on marriage of children, a harmful practice that is a global challenge. The fundamental change I have seen is that child marriage, which was generally encouraged by struggling parents, is now encouraged by struggling girls. This disturbing trend underscores a new burden of the pandemic on the poor.
Marriage before the age of 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights. Again UNICEF reported in April, that the number of girls married in childhood rises to 12 million per year in the world.
According to the United Nations Population Fund State of World Population 2020 report, COVID-19 threatens to worsen even this astonishing number. The agency estimates that COVID-19 will disrupt efforts to end child marriage, which could lead to 13 million more child marriages between 2020 and 2030 that might otherwise have been avoided.
The challenge is not just the disease, but the response to the disease – particularly the impact of school closures, which have been in effect nationwide since March. The transition from school-based learning to online learning can easily seem mechanical, but it creates new challenges for remote and poor communities.
What I have seen while visiting rural communities are girls who are totally bored and are forced to go home by the closure of schools. They generally do not have access to the Internet, television and smartphones. Analog phones are the only readily available means of communication, and all too often parents are unable to maintain some kind of home education.
Girls are confined to the house because, unlike boys, their parents are generally forbidden to leave the house unnecessarily. School closures therefore become as much restrictive as they are restrictive.
Too often the girls I saw had frozen eyes. They saw no future for themselves. Without a school, they were deprived of opportunities. The daily effect was overwhelming. The only way out was child marriage.
The shift to girls wishing to marry children instead of their parents is devastating and could drive the numbers even higher. This could limit the prospects and potential of girls around the world.
School closures also affect boys, but boys have more to do. They are freer, more mobile, more outside. In some areas, this can increase child labor, drug addiction and gambling, but boys are not confined like girls.
The situation is also different in urban areas, where access to the Internet, television and smartphones is greater. Internet access has its own responsibilities, but it is available for educational purposes.
For girls and women, the response to COVID-19 also has other implications. Lockouts have left many men out of work and therefore at home during the day, often making demands of one sort or another. The burden on women – preparing more food, doing more housework, sustaining life at home – is only increasing. Financial stress creates domestic stress and the potential for violence increases, especially as husbands demand more money from wives’ families – a major cause of domestic violence.
BRAC works to prevent child marriage and other forms of violence against women and children and to advocate for the victims of such violence. BRAC’s community empowerment program supports Polli Shomaj, community women’s groups that are active in 54 of Bangladesh’s 64 districts in the fight against gender-based violence. BRAC also operates 410 legal aid clinics, whose cases typically involve gender-based violence. But to maximize prevention, a culture change is needed.
Men and women are equal in the Constitution and law of Bangladesh, but not in its culture. And with 3 million backlogs in the court system, the law has limited effect.
To bring about this cultural change requires economic empowerment alongside the social empowerment of girls and women. This requires practical skills for negotiation, partnering in decision making, and goal setting, among others. This requires vocational training to enable girls and women to connect to the labor market and earn their own income. It also requires microfinance so women can get loans and mentorship so women can see a future that they can make an impact.
Fortunately, BRAC has these tools in place. BRAC microfinance has 7.1 million customers, 87% of whom are women. BRAC Skills development program provided 84,581 people with the training and knowledge needed for employment, and 83% of these learners – 50% of whom are women – got a job after graduation. Together, these tools create a comprehensive package that can empower girls and women to see a vibrant future and escape gender-based violence.
But the scale of the problem is even greater. 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 faced some form of domestic violence; about half say their partners physically assaulted them. And the problem is global.
COVID-19 has revealed that girls and women must be able to see a future of opportunity for themselves. As we fight COVID-19, the world must wake up to this revelation. COVID-19 is now expected to become the world’s catalyst for making possible a future of opportunity for girls and women – a future free of gender-based violence.
The author is a program manager for the Community Empowerment Program of BRAC, one of the largest non-governmental organizations in the world.
© Inter Press Service (2020) – All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service