According to UNICEF, 51 percent of married women aged from 20-24 in Bangladesh get married before the age of 18. Many organisations, including UNICEF, have expressed concern that this trend of child marriage has taken a terrible turn during the pandemic.
BRAC, New York University and UN Women recently conducted a study. The study surveyed 6,360 households and identified 150 cases of child marriage during the reference period from April to October 2020. In 39 percent of the cases, the brides were under 18, and in 30 percent of cases, they were under 16.
Respondents usually tend to hide the actual age of brides if they are married off before the age of 18, considering the legal implications (although the amended law makes 16 years acceptable for exceptional reasons). The survey included another question to demystify the genuine age issue.
It was asked in the questionnaire at which class the girl was studying at the time of marriage. That analysis suggested that 77 percent of brides were under 18 at the time of marriage, and 61 percent were under 16.
The rate is even higher in rural areas (81 percent under 18 and 64 percent under 16). This information suggests a quick overview that many school and college-going girls have had to marry during the Covid-19 pandemic, which seems to be more than usual.
Prolonged school closure is one of the main reasons behind the rise in child marriage. Many parents have expressed concern over their daughters' safety who stay at home all day.
Since the girls are not in touch with in-person education at schools— finding no other alternative, their parents have chosen to marry them off. As a result, it will be almost impossible for these children to return to classrooms when the school will reopen.
This suggests that the dropout rate of girl students will increase. If that happens, it will seriously impact our attainments in increasing girls' school enrolment and reducing dropout rates.
Like the fear around the girls' dropout, some fears are also culminating in the case of boys. The pandemic has compelled many boys from low-income families to become involved in various income-generating activities. With the loss of their parents' jobs or reduced income, the children have taken up some work to help the family earn a living.
Doubts remain as to whether this section of boys will return to school if the situation returns to normal.
The decision to keep schools closed was judicious to contain widespread transmission of the coronavirus. However, there is no misgiving that more than a year of unceasing closure will create a long-term wound, especially for students in rural areas.
Although urban children got significant aid in the form of online classes, the only way for the village children to learn was through the classes broadcast on Sangsad Television.
A BRAC survey found that 56 percent of students (studying in Bangla medium and madrasas) do not follow the classes broadcast on television. And for various reasons, they were not interested in those classes.
In many cases, the issue of accessibility has also been observed on a large scale. That means many families do not have a television or cable network.
On the other hand, teachers and students do not have the technical capacity to make up for the loss of students in rural areas through online classes. As a result, they have no choice but to accept the loss of education.
A World Bank survey (2015) found that 25 percent of students in Liberia dropped out of school due to the Ebola epidemic. Concerns show that if the relevant authorities do not take proper alternative measures, the dropout rate in our country may be higher than this.
Students who will return to school will also have a learning loss that will have a long-term impact on their education and future career. To put it bluntly, in the last year, the learning competencies that were supposed to impart to the students through education activities have remained unachieved.
With many usual educational activities being shut down, access to quality education became nonexistent for the students in rural areas. As a result, the lack of learning skills among rural children will have grave consequences.
In the future, this deficit will produce disparity in many areas between rural and urban students, especially when it comes to entering into professional life.
With the second and third waves of the Covid-19 pandemic looming, bringing the education system back to normal has become a new challenge. Moreover, if this situation continues and we go without thinking of any alternatives, its long-term effects will be catastrophic.
Gradually, we should consider resuming educational activities in a few steps. First, we may reopen the schools within a short time in those districts where the coronavirus infection rate is less than 5 percent.
In that case, the schools must strictly obey the hygiene rules. Additionally, upazila education authorities must form a monitoring team to gauge the overall condition of each school.
Secondly, online classes can continue in districts where the infection rate is still high. In that case, teachers and students have to be equipped with the necessary learning tools.
Finally, students can be taken under the priority list of a vaccination campaign so that all educational institutions can be reopened within a short period of time. It is crucial to make the right decision for the sake of the future of Bangladesh.
Abu Said Md Juel Miah is a Development Researcher currently working in BRAC's Advocacy for Social Change Programme. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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