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Thousands of girls married during pandemic are now absent as schools reopen in Bangladesh
DHAKA: When 16-year-old Borsha recently went to her local police station with a desperate cry for help out of a forced marriage, her greatest wish was to go back to school.
Her simple request to return to education undoubtedly mirrored the dreams of thousands of other married girls in southern Bangladesh whose class seats have remained empty since one of the longest shutdowns in the disease was lifted in coronavirus (COVID-19) in the world.
Borsha, whose marriage was called off when police intervened, is one of many schoolgirls in the area who have reportedly been silently married over the past 18 months.
Living in her grandparents’ house in Chuadanga district, with her mother earning $ 2.50 a day at a local factory, Borsha realizes that the cost of her education is a big expense for her family, but she told Arab News that early marriage was not the way to end these cycles of poverty.
She said: “It is very difficult for my mother to make ends meet and cover my education expenses, but marrying little girls is not the solution.
“My teacher at school also taught me about the negative impacts of child marriage, as it creates so many health complications for a girl. I want to finish my studies first and become a journalist.
Borsha is studying at Jhinuk High School who agreed to waive her tuition fees until she graduates from high school.
The age of marriage in Bangladesh is 18 for women and 21 for men, but according to United Nations Children’s Fund 2019 estimates – before the COVID-19 outbreak – over 15 , 5% of Bangladeshi girls were forced into marriage before the age of 15.
Following the recent reopening of Bangladeshi schools, authorities have been alarmed by the number of girls not attending classes.
Precise information on child marriage in Bangladesh during the pandemic remains largely anecdotal, but the numbers are believed to have risen as quarantines and lockdowns have exacerbated existing economic and social conflicts in communities such as Borsha.
In neighboring Khulna district, authorities have started counting cases.
District, told Arab News: “We noticed that many girls were not attending classes when schools reopened last month. Our school authorities contacted their guardians and discovered that many girls had been married off when schools closed. We have recorded over 3,000 child marriages in this neighborhood.
And the actual number can be much higher.
“Financial and social insecurity had led parents to marry their daughters. Our teachers keep in touch with the tutors to convince them to allow girls to attend classes, ”he said.
Abus Shahid, a father from Khulna who married his ninth-grade daughter six months ago, said he had no choice because his income had been reduced.
“At the same time, schools were closed indefinitely, and my daughter had nothing to do but stay inactive at home,” he added.
Asma Begum, also from Khulna, said she agreed to her 15-year-old daughter getting married in order to save her from unwelcome advances and teasing.
“I had to make the decision. Moreover, we received the proposal of a good groom. It depends on her in-laws whether she will allow her daughter-in-law to continue her studies, ”added Begum.
The number of child marriage cases in Bangladesh revealed by the reopening of schools in the country may be just the tip of the iceberg.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, data showed that an underage girl somewhere in the world was forced into marriage every two seconds, and with cases of the virus still on the rise, the UN has planned 13 million marriages more children over the next decade as prevention programs have been disrupted by lockdowns and the global economic downturn.
Rasheda Chowdhury, a renowned Bangladeshi educator and director of the Campaign for Popular Education, told Arab News that the problem was already there before the start of the pandemic and immediate intervention was now needed.
She said: “We have failed to resolve the problem socially and administratively. To prevent child marriage, a coordinated effort must be made.
“Female members of local government bodies should play a role in getting girls back to school and preventing further cases of child marriage.