Bangladesh, child brides, child marriage, patriarchy, crime
Nargise Nahar at her home in Kurigram, the poorest district in Bangladesh. She became national news when, after nearly two years, she was the only girl in her grade to show up to school. (Photos obtained by VICE World News)

Students Are Finally Returning to School in Bangladesh, but the Girls Are Missing

When one of the world’s longest COVID-19 shutdowns was lifted, it exposed the country’s deep-rooted problems.
September 30, 2021, 2:29pm

On the morning of September 12, Nargise Nahar couldn’t contain her glee. It was her first day back to school after the long lockdown, and she was excited to get back and see her classmates.

The youngest daughter of a local village veterinarian, Nargise had been stuck at home since March 2020, when the deadly COVID-19 waves wreaked havoc on her country, Bangladesh. It was the only country in South Asia to completely shut down schools, and one of only 14 in the world. In most of rural Bangladesh, online classes are unheard-of. And though NGOs and other groups offer online learning, most residents of these villages don’t have smartphones or computers.

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This country of 166 million people is one of the poorest in the world, and Nargise’s home district, Kurigram, often ranks as the poorest in Bangladesh. Nargise doesn’t have a smartphone to access online classes, nor does her father. But she dreams of becoming a lawyer when she grows up. “I want to work for the people of this country,” the 14-year-old told VICE World News. 

So when Bangladesh reopened after one of the world’s longest COVID-19 shutdowns, Nargise woke up really early in the morning, got dressed, and turned up at Sardob Adarsha High School. She expected to be reunited with her girl friends and catch up on 543 days of their lives she had missed. Instead, she was stunned. 

She was the only girl there. 

The class attendance register reviewed by VICE World News showed that over the summer, six girls—including Nargise—were promoted to Class 9th, along with 27 boys. But on that morning of Sept. 12, she was the only girl to turn up, and only five boys showed up. 

She expected to be reunited with her girl friends and catch up on 543 days of their lives she had missed. Instead, she was stunned. She was the only girl there.

Nargise asked around, inquiring where the girls had disappeared to. “I came to know that all of them got married during the COVID-19 lockdown,” she said. “It was surreal.”

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Around 64 million Bangladeshi children already struggle to access education due to factors like natural calamities and poverty. The pandemic made it worse, bringing another new factor interfering with education: a rise in child marriages. 

One NGO report found that child marriages in Bangladesh increased by 13 percent during the pandemic—the highest in 25 years. 

While illegal, child marriages are very common across South Asia.

Bangladesh ranks among the world’s top 10 countries with the highest cases of child marriage. Even though the country officially bans marriage for girls under 18 and men under 21, plenty of formal and informal unions are carried out as part of social and cultural norms.

Abdul Khalek, Nargise’s father, earns $100-$150 a month in his job treating animals. His wife, Roshna Begum, takes care of their family. When the pandemic hit, he received three marriage proposals for Nargise. He didn’t give in. “I want my youngest daughter to keep studying,” said Khalek. “I want her to be independent and get a good job.”

Bangladesh, child brides, child marriage, patriarchy, crime

Nargise Nahar with her parents Abdul Khalek and Roshna Begum outside her home.

Arpita Das, from human rights NGO Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), which monitors, documents and prevents child marriages in the country, said that child marriages are borne out of people’s financial restrictions as well as concern over their daughters’ security. 

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Bangladesh ranks among 10 countries with the highest cases of child marriage in the world.

“In Bangladesh, it’s a social norm where parents think that the older girls get, they will not get a good groom,” said Das. “Also, if they marry them off at an early age, they get to pay a smaller amount of dowry.” Dowry is another common South Asian practice wherein the bride’s family pays off the groom’s family as part of the marital exchange. The transactional nature of the custom is deeply rooted in male-biased inheritance laws and patriarchy. 

Fauzia Moslem, the acting president of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, a rights-based NGO that’s part of the global campaign called Girls Not Brides, added that the fault also lies in the lack of political will to protect girls. “All districts have child marriage prohibition committees,” she said. “But its functions are not adequate. The state is not taking it seriously.”

The country’s Child Marriage Restraint Act, 2017, has been criticised in the past for allowing marriages in “special cases”. Moslem said these exceptions have diluted the law. “There is a lot of violence against girls, and these acts are not properly addressed. There is no justice,” she said. “So the guardians think they would rather shift the responsibility of their girls. And that leads to early marriages.”

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But child marriage itself is a form of violence. “Girls get pregnant at an early age, their education is disrupted, and she loses her agency. Her health is heavily compromised too,” Das said. “All kinds of human rights are violated.” Moslem added that there are many reports of young girls facing health challenges after intercourse or from early motherhood.

On the ground, the nonprofit Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), which monitors, documents and prevents child marriages in the country, documented at least 13,886 child marriages in 21 out of 64 districts across Bangladesh since the first COVID-19 lockdown. The study also noted that the actual number might be “much higher” since many child marriages are never reported. “It became very easy for parents to secretly hold weddings, without the knowledge of local officials,” Das said. Fake birth certificates are also easily obtained through informal agents, which helps parents avoid the consequences related to child marriage laws: fine or imprisonment.

Das said most government and nongovernmental service providers stopped monitoring child marriages because they got tied p with COVID-19 management.

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But when COVID-19 restrictions lifted and MJF started documenting, Das said, they soon learned that the leading reason for girls dropping out of school was child marriage. 

In Kurigram itself, at least 50,000 children are estimated to have dropped out due to early marriage and poverty. The local education official in Kurigram told local news outlets that as many as 63 girls in this district became victims of child marriage.

Fazlay Rahman Sarkar, the headmaster of Sardob Adarsha High School, told VICE World News that before his school shut down last year, there were a total of 213 students in grades 6 through 10, of which 62 were girls. When they reopened, only 40 girls returned.  

In Kurigram itself, at least 50,000 children are estimated to have dropped out due to early marriage and poverty. The local education official in Kurigram told local news outlets that as many as 63 girls in this district became victims of child marriage.

Now, increasing news reports of disappearing girls have agitated local administrations. Sarkar said the local officials instructed the school to carry out an investigation and figure out where the girls went. “When we reached out to the families, some told us their daughters went to [the capital] Dhaka or elsewhere after their marriages,” he said. 

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But Sarkar has yet to receive the girls’ marriage certificates. “So we can’t yet confirm whether they all got married or not,” he said. 

After the investigations started, some girls who’d gotten married did return to school, said Sarkar and Nargise. “The number of my classmates is slowly increasing,” Nargise said. “In one of the classes, one of the girls who got married turned up.” Sarkar added that two other female students started attending classes after he approached their families. 

The Bangladeshi government has launched initiatives to monitor and stop child marriages. 

Dr Abul Hossain, the project director of a programme to end violence against women with the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, told local media that if girls receive secondary school education, they are less likely to be child brides. This is true, “even if they are from poorer households and live in rural areas,” he said. 

Das said that since last year, their teams prevented at least 8,000 child marriages in 22 districts. A UN report estimates that in order to end child marriage in the country, progress must be ramped up exponentially over the rate of the past decade to meet the national target. 

In the meantime, Khalek, Nargise’s father, said that despite his dreams for his daughter, the realities are hard to reconcile. He has two older daughters who married at the age of 17 and 18, respectively. It was in 2017, around the time when a flood in River Dharla, which runs through his village, swallowed his farmland and put him in a severe financial crunch. 

“I was struggling financially, and I was compelled to get my daughters married,” said Khalek, who spent $2,335 as dowry in both weddings. Nargise said she understands her parents’ struggles. “It will be a little difficult to continue my education,” she said. “I need tutors for English and mathematics, and both tutors cost taka 1,500 ($17.43). But my family cannot afford it.”

But she doesn’t want to let go of her dreams just yet: “If I get married now, my plans for my future will be ruined.”

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