A new age-verification app created by the nonprofit Plan International, which focuses on protecting children and particularly girls’ rights, and the government of Bangladesh, prevented 3,700 child marriages in a trial. The partners hope to roll out the app-based program nationally by August 2018. Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage, with 66 percent of girls marrying before 18. Some advocates warn that this app is not a silver bullet, while others are cautiously optimistic.
Child marriage remains a treacherous tradition for females around the globe. Marrying while a young teen can force people into dangerous early pregnancies, leaving school and other life changes that have many detrimental effects. In 2012, 70 million women around the world within the age range of 20 to 24 were found to have been married before the age of 18.
Soumya Guha, Plan International’s Deputy Country Director in Bangladesh, says:
If a girl is married before 18, she is more likely to drop out of school, become a child mother, die during pregnancy or childbirth, and be trapped in a lifetime of poverty … Child marriage has proven so difficult to tackle in the past because it is so deeply rooted in society. It takes time to change people’s minds, and with 160 million people in Bangladesh, it’s understandable that it is a slow process … The app could be the game changer that we need.
The new app was made by a government official in the remote district of Kurigram and further developed and scaled by Plan International for a trial in five districts including Kurigram. It stopped about 3,700 underage marriages and will be put into use throughout Bangladesh in partnership with the Prime Minister’s Office. The government aims to end all child marriages by 2041.
The app allows marriage officials to digitally confirm the age of a couple. Men are banned from marrying under age 21 in Bangladesh. Three documents can be used to confirm age: a birth certificate, “school leaving” certificate or national ID card. While paper versions of these can be forged, and often are, the app allows officials to digitally confirm whether they are accurate. It is intended for use by matchmakers, marriage registrars and solemnisers -- in Muslim marriages, these are Imams, and in Hindu marriages, Pandits -- who conduct the marriages. Plan International is training 100,000 marriage officiants about the negative effects of child marriage and how to use the app. The app has an online and a text-based version, so that even people in rural areas can use it. Close to 80 percent of the country’s population own mobile phones, the Bangladeshi publication The Independent reports.
Supreme Court lawyer Sara Hossain thinks girls need to be better educated about their rights and that legal loopholes must be closed.
"People might just avoid the registration because it is not required for validity of marriage and there is only a minor penalty for not registering. It's not a big thing, she said.
Shamsur Alam is an Imam and father of five who has participated in more than 100 marriage ceremonies. His wife was a sixteen-year-old when they were wed -- he was 24. The marriage was arranged by his parents. He has been trained with the new app and has since stopped two child marriages.
“Before, I would sympathize with a father about his economic condition and would say yes to getting his daughter married at an early age for that reason. But after attending the training, I realized that child marriage can cause health problems to young brides. Getting pregnant at an early age can be hazardous for the health of the mother,” he told Plan International. He formed a committee with 42 imams to educate locals about the dangers of child marriage. He has also introduced this topic into prayer times at the mosque.
The nonprofit and government are moving forward with wider implementation of the app in 2018. Plan International also supports youth groups called “the Wedding Busters,” in Bangladesh, wherein children work with local government officials to address the topic and risks with parents, create “child-marriage-free zones” and alert authorities to illegal marriages if necessary. The nonprofit is empowering young girls to take up the fight against child marriages in countries like Honduras and Malawi as well.
In other child-marriage news, India’s government is currently a considering a proposal that would invalidate any future child marriages. It is home to a third of the child brides in the world.
“Wedding Busters: Child Marriage-Free Zones in Bangladesh:”