As the schools in Bangladesh reopened after long Covid-induced shutdown last month, many girls in this coastal district were missing from classrooms with a majority of them lost to early marriages.
For the mostly poor families, hit hard by the pandemic, the 18-month shutdown has proved too long and unbearable to take care of their young girls.
In Bagerhat, around 3,178 girls, mostly school goers, were married off between March 2020 till September 20221, according to district Education Officer Md Kamruzzaman.
Nilanjana (not her real name) was in class eight in March 2020 when the surging pandemic closed her Basabati Rahmania Secondary school in Bagerhat, along with education shutdown across the country.
With the closure getting unexpectedly longer her poor parents, struggling to maintain a five-member family, decided to marry her off and ease their burden.
Luckily in Nilanjan's case the marriage dissolved in just three months.
Unable to bear her husband's torture, the little girl gathered the courage to break away from the toxic relationship and returned to her patents after filing for a divorce.
Nilajona broke down in tears while describing the hell she had to live through in her ex in-law's house.
"My father, a hawker by profession, used to live hand to mouth. We were thrown in deep waters after the lockdown as my father could not earn any more," she said
"I could not say no to my helpless father, Nilanjona continued.
"But now I want to go back to school again as everything seems to be coming back on track and there is light at the end of the tunnel," she added.
Increasing rate of school dropouts and child marriage will surely top the list among the adverse impacts of such a lengthy closure.
Poor families in the country's hinterland, who once were encouraged to send their children to school by the school meals programme, could not withstand the onslaught of Covid and its devastating impact on their livelihood.
Early marriages of under-aged girls have been a common feature in this impoverished coastal district. But the Covid crisis has compounded the social problem with school going girls becoming the victims.
In short, it can be said that child marriage spread like an epidemic during the coronavirus pandemic in Bangladesh.
Giving a break-up of the child marriages in his district, education officer Kamruzzaman said, 497 happened in Bagerhat Sadar Upazila, 391 in Fakirhat and Mollahat 344, 407 in Chitalmari, 516 in Kachua, 237 in Rampal, 218 in Mongla, 355 in Morelganj and 213 in Sharankhola upazila.
The Covid-induced poverty and resulting child marriages have shattered dreams of many parents about their daughters.
"My daughter was married off to a neighbouring auto rickshaw driver and now she is pregnant. We are worried about her health," the sad mother of a teenaged girl, a school drop-out.
Acting Headmaster of Bagerhat Jahanabad Girls High School Uttam Kumar Pal said that 18 girls from class five to ten of his school have been victims of child marriages.
"Of them, seven came back to school but the rest are feared to have dropped out," he added.
Similarly, principal of Bagerhat Multipurpose Collegiate School Farhana Akhter said that 22 of her students from classes between eight and ten married off during the school closure.
Abdus Salam, the headmaster of Rahmania Secondary School in Bagerhat said that 11 students of his institution also could not escape early marriage.
"Many more would have suffered the same fate if schools remained closed a little longer," he noted.
Also, 18 girls of Basabati Secondary School were married off, informed assistant headmaster of the institution Kartik Chandra Pal.
Bagerhat Deputy Commissioner Mohammad Azizur Rahman said that his administration prevented as many as 400 child marriages in the last one and a half years.
"Legal actions will be taken against those involved in child marriage. The administration is vigilant in ensuring that illegal birth certificates are not issued under any circumstances in order to prevent premature pregnancy," he added.
Bangladesh has made significant strides in reducing child and maternity rate over the years.
However, the progress could be jeopardised if child marriage increases at an exponential rate.
"It will be impossible to reduce child and maternal mortality if early marriage continues to increase," said Bagerhat Sadar Upazila, Health and Family Planning Officer Pradeep Kumar Bakshi.a