DHAKA, Bangladesh, December 21 (IPS) – I recently visited rural areas in Bangladesh amid the COVID-19 pandemic and returned to Dhaka to understand the impact of COVID-19 on the global challenge. The fundamental change I saw was that child marriage, which was normally promoted by parents in difficulty, is now promoted by girls in difficulty. This worrying trend underscores a new burden on the poor from the pandemic.
Marriage before the age of 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights. Still, UNICEF reported in April that the number of girls married in childhood is 12 million a year worldwide.
COVID-19 threatens to exacerbate this staggering number, according to the United Nations Population Fund 2020 report on World Population Status. The agency estimates that COVID-19 will disrupt efforts to end child marriage, potentially leading to an additional 13 million child marriages between 2020 and 2030 that could otherwise have been averted.
The challenge is not just the disease, but the response to the disease – especially the impact of school closings, which has been in effect at the national level since March. The transition from school to online learning may seem mechanical, but it poses new challenges for remote and poor communities.
Saeda Bilkis BaniWhat I saw visiting rural communities were girls who were totally bored and had school closings. As a rule, they lack internet access, television and smartphones. Analog telephones are the only readily available means of communication, and too often parents cannot maintain schooling at home.
The girls are tied to their homes because, unlike the boys, their parents generally forbid them from leaving the house unnecessarily. This makes school closings both restrictive and restrictive.
Too often the girls I saw had glassy expressions in their eyes. They saw no future for themselves. Without a school they were deprived of their opportunities. The daily effect was crushing. The only escape was child marriage.
The shift towards girls seeking child marriage instead of their parents is devastating and could add to the number. This could limit the prospects and potential of girls worldwide.
School closings affect boys too, but boys have more to do. You are freer, more mobile, more outdoors. In some areas, this can increase child labor, drug addiction, and gambling, but boys are not restricted like girls.
The situation is also different in urban areas, where access to the Internet, television and smartphones is better. Internet access has its own obligations but is available for educational purposes.
For girls and women, the response to COVID-19 has other implications as well. Lockdowns have left many men unemployed and are therefore at home during the day and often have demands of one kind or another. The burden on women of preparing more food, cleaning more, maintaining home life is only increasing. Financial stress creates domestic stress and the potential for violence grows, especially when husbands demand more money from wives’ families – a leading cause of domestic violence.
BRAC works to prevent child marriage and other forms of violence against women and children and to defend victims of such violence. BRAC’s Community Empowerment Program supports Polli Shomaj, the community-based women’s groups that fight gender-based violence in 54 of 64 districts in Bangladesh. BRAC also operates 410 Legal Aid Clinics, whose cases typically involve gender-based violence. However, to maximize prevention, cultural change is required.
Men and women are equal in Bangladesh’s constitution and law, but not in its culture. And with 3 million cases left in the judicial system, the law has limited impact.
In order to bring about this cultural change, in addition to the social empowerment of girls and women, economic empowerment is also necessary. It requires life skills for negotiation, partners in decision making, and goal setting, among other things. It requires training in professional skills so that girls and women can connect to the job market and earn their own income. It also requires microfinance so women can get credit and mentoring so women can see a future that they can influence.
Fortunately, BRAC has these tools. BRAC Microfinance has 7.1 million customers, 87% of whom are women. The BRAC skills development program has provided 84,581 people with the training and knowledge necessary for employment, and 83% of learners – 50% of whom are women – have secured jobs upon graduation. Together, these tools form a comprehensive package with which girls and women can see a vibrant future and escape gender-based violence.
However, 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 have been exposed to some form of abuse by intimate partners. About half of them say that their partners physically attacked them. And the problem is global.
COVID-19 has shown that girls and women need to be able to see a future full of opportunity for themselves. In fighting COVID-19, the world must awaken to this revelation. COVID-19 should now become the catalyst for the world to enable girls and women a future of opportunity – a future without gender-based violence.
The author is a program manager in the Community Empowerment Program at BRAC, one of the largest non-governmental organizations in the world.
Follow @IPSNewsUNBureauFollow IPS New UN Bureau on Instagram
(2020) – All rights reserved