Online birth data to prevent child marriage in Bangladesh

DHAKA, 3 July 2012 (IRIN) – The Bangladeshi government is attempting to register birth data online to combat high levels of child marriage. On 8 June in Bangladesh’s western Khustia District, local media reported that 15-year-old Iva Parvin was to be married off by parents hiding her age, but local officials challenged the marriage and demanded proof that she had reached the legal marrying age of 18. When her parents could not provide documentation, the marriage was not approved.

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“We feel the situation is improving but it is still not acceptable,” said Amy Delneuville, a child protection specialist at the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Bangladesh. “In visits by our staff to the field, we are still finding unacceptable numbers of girls being married with the approval of the kazi [a person who conducts the marriage] and parents.”

Everyone should “soon” have a birth certificate. Limited birth registration data is already online, with a full roll-out expected by June 2013. “Once it is fully online it will be easy to stop child marriage when parents marry off their daughter hiding her age,” said A K M Saiful Islam Chowdhury, director of the government’s Birth and Death Registration Project, which is supported by UNICEF.

The government launched a campaign to reach the estimated 90 percent of the population that did not have birth documentation in 2006. Today, an estimated 114 million of the country’s 150 million inhabitants have birth certificates, according to officials.

Root causes
The 2007 Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey recorded that 66 percent of women aged 20-24, mainly in rural areas, were married before they were 18 years old.

Zinnat Afroze, a social development adviser at Plan International, a child rights NGO working in Bangladesh, said it was impossible to end child marriage without addressing its root causes.

The Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association noted that almost 90 percent of girls aged 10-18 have experienced what is known locally as “eve-teasing”, where boys intercept girls on the street, shout obscenities, tease them and grab their clothing.

“Parents feel insecure… [they fear the] sexual harassment [of their girls] and marry off their girl child,” Afroze said. Local human rights groups have reported girls committing suicide as a result of such harassment.

The dowry is another problem, Afroze said. “Many parents believe that they have to give high dowry money if they [wait and] do not marry off their girl at their early age,” she said. The younger the bride, the lower the dowry.

Fighting back
Experts note that birth certificates are only one tool for preventing such marriages. Since 1982 the Female Secondary School Assistance Programme has used cash incentives paid to families to keep girls in secondary school and out of marriage.

Guardians receive a stipend of up to $9 per month, depending on which grade the girl is in at school, on condition that she attends at least 75 percent of her classes, and remains unmarried until she completes her exams. Tuition, books and public exam fees are also covered.

Afroze said some guardians have tried to collect the stipend without sending the girls to school. “The government stipend programme for female students should continue, and should be strongly monitored so that the right person gets it.”

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