Child marriage and child labour are two major threats affecting the lives of girl children in Bangladesh. As both child marriage and child labour are driven by poverty and usually force girls to drop out of school, the increased economic hardships and prolonged school closures during the Covid-19 pandemic may well have exacerbated both these injustices. While Bangladesh had made commendable progress in advancing the rights and empowerment of girls in the past two decades, the scope for utilising communications technology to combat social injustices, such as child marriage and child labour, remains wide and largely unexplored.
Therefore, on the occassion of International Day of the Girl Child 2021, BRAC’s Gender Justice and Diversity (GJD) programme organised an advocacy dialogue on“Role of Technology in Combatting Child Marriage and Child Labour”today (Monday, October 11) at BRAC Centre, where discussants called for exploring technology as an effective yet under-utilised tool to tackle child marriage and child labour in the country.
Zunaid Ahmed Palak, State Minister for Information and Communication Technology (ICT), Government of Bangladesh attended the dialogue as the chief guest, and Asif Saleh, Executive Director of BRAC was also present. Nobonita Chowdhury, Director, GJD, BRAC moderated the whole session.
In his speech, Zunaid Ahmed Palak said the differential attitude for a boy versus girl child needs to be changed first to eliminate child marriage and child labour from the society. Technology, projects or plans will not be fruitful if the psychological and mindset change is not made. To prevent child marriage, we have designed a protocol called Bondhon.gov.bd where online marriage registration will be mandatory, but no marriage will be registered without a verifiable document which will ultimately eliminate any chance for child marriage. We will launch it soon.”
The state minister suggested using artificial intelligence in workplaces to combat child marriage. ICT Division of the government and BRAC can work jointly on elimination of child marriage and child labour through the use of technology, he added.
During the session, Asif Saleh, discussed the importance of protecting girl children from child marriage and child labour using technology. “We have to work relentlessly to eliminate the pervasive societal attitude to discriminate between girl and boy children. We have laws, but it is urgent that implementing agencies should be equipped with all the necessary technological solutions for effective execution of laws. We need to find out the underlying causes of child marriages and work towards changing the social psyche and that of the parents as well.”
He had also stressed equalising the digital divide currently existing among the girl and boy children, causing girls to be able to access technologies and devices less than the boys.
Nobonita Chowdhury, Director of Gender, Justice and Diversity (GJD) programme at BRAC said, ‘Even though the birth registration system in Bangladesh is being digitised, it is not yet mandatory to digitally verify birth registration when someone is being appointed for work or is registering their marriage. Therefore, forged or fake documents can often bypass the entire system. As a result, we do not have any statistics that accurately reflect the real child marriage or child labour scenario. So a thirteen year old girl can be passed off as an eighteen year old, in order to be married off or employed in work. The entire process can be strengthened by fully digitising the civil registration system, including the birth registration, marriage registration and employment’
Mohammad Abdul Wahed, President (Dhaka District), Bangladesh Muslim Niqah (Marriage) Registrar Samity spoke about how digitilisation of the age verification process during the marriage registration process can help registrars better tackle child marriages. Syeda Munira Sultana, National Specialist and Programme Coordinator at ILO Bangladesh spoke about the challenges of addressing child labour in Bangladesh and the scope of utilising technology to strenghten labour governance and inspection.
In the panel discussion, Mohammad Tabarak Ullah, Additional Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Bangladesh Police at National Emergency Service discussed how the helpline has been stopping child marriages during the pandemic after getting calls from girls being married off, and other witnesses. Dr. Nova Ahmed, Associate Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at North South University spoke about the importance of incorporating gender considerations when devising technological interventions intended to address social injustices such as child marriage and child labour based on examples from Bangladesh and beyond.
The dialogue opened with a presentation by Taqbir Huda, Advocacy Lead, GJD, BRAC, who said “We must focus on equipping birth registrars, marriage registrars and labour inspectors with digital verification tools to better enforce existing legal safeguards against child marriage and child labour. The government has already begun utilising technology to combat child marriage and child labour, such as by introducing national helplines, digitising birth registrations system, developing apps like LIMA - the labour inspection app and the pilot child marriage prevention app in Kurigram, so further investment needs to be towards strengthening these interventions.”
Prior to the pandemic, 51 percent of the young women in Bangladesh were married before they turned 18, according to a Multiple Cluster Indicator Survey (MICS) 2019 conducted by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. The COVID-19 pandemic, which created 2.45 million new poor in the country, andincreased the likelihood of child marriage and child labour, due to worsened economic insecurity and prolonged school closures. In June 2021, International Labour Organization and UNICEF reported that for the first time in two decades, child labour was on the rise globally, including in South Asia, due to the socio-economic impact of Covid-19.
11 October marks the International Day of the Girl Child, a day on which countries around the world focus on the need to address the unique challenges girls in their countries face as well as recognise their human rights. The international theme for Girl Child Day this year is Digital Generation Our Generation, which focuses on equipping girls with digital solutions which can enable them to realise their full potential. Therefore, GJD, BRAC arranged this dialogue to serve as a basis to bring child marriage prevention and child labour prevention at the forefront of the discourse, and identifying the various ways in which technology is and can be used to combat both child marriage and child labour so the human rights of all girls in Bangladesh can be secured.