DHAKA: Bangladesh will overhaul its school curriculum and introduce a new subject covering reproductive health as the country addresses its biggest surge in child marriage in more than two decades, top education officials have said.
Although the legal age for marriage in Bangladesh is 18 for women and 21 for men, the nation has the highest rate of child marriage in South Asia. Of its 167 million residents, some 38 million women were married before their 18th birthday — 13 million of them before they were 15 — according to BRAC, the largest development organization in the country.
The problem has worsened during COVID-19 quarantines and lockdowns, which have aggravated existing economic and social problems.
Primary and Mass Education State Minister Md. Zakir Hossain announced in December that the government would introduce a new curriculum to address the issue of child marriage.
“A revision of the new curriculum is underway. It will be implemented from January 2023,” Nazma Sheikh, deputy secretary of primary and mass education told Arab News.
Prof. Syed Mahfuj Ali, senior expert in high school education at the National Curriculum and Textbook Board, said the new subject — Health Safety — will be introduced as a compulsory topic to “raise awareness on child marriage, adolescent health, mental health, et cetera.”
While the subject will initially be taught to secondary school students in grades six to 10, Prof. Dr. A. K. M. Riajul Hasan, the board’s member for primary education, said it may also be introduced for younger children.
“Considering the present context, we may add the awareness issues on child marriage into grade five’s curriculum,” he said.
The Bangladeshi government aims to eliminate child marriage by 2041. Its National Action Plan for Prevention was launched in 2018, but was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As child marriage is closely linked to poverty and affects girls’ educational opportunities, it came into the spotlight when Bangladeshi schools reopened in September and authorities noticed that large numbers of girls were not attending classes.
For now, information about child marriage in the country during the pandemic remains largely anecdotal, but while UNICEF data from 2019 showed that more than 15.5 percent of Bangladeshi girls had married when under the age of 15, BRAC estimates that rate has increased by 13 percent to its highest level in the last 25 years.
“Removing child marriage from the country is our top priority and we will not leave any stone unturned to achieve this goal,” Ali said.
The board’s three-year pilot project — Generation Breakthrough, or GB — was carried out in the southern region districts of Barguna, Barishal and Patuakhali, where child marriage figures were among the country’s highest, and the results were promising.
“The GB initiative brought good results in reducing child marriage in these areas,” Ali said. “Now we will introduce this program in textbooks across the country from 2023.”
The curriculum overhaul, he said, is also intended to make “education more helpful in real life.”
“We will also teach them about reproductive-health issues, which were mostly evaded for years due to social taboos,” he explained.
With one year before the launch of the new curriculum, the textbook board is taking immediate smaller steps to help raise awareness.
“For the new academic year, starting from January 2022, we have printed two emergency toll-free numbers — 333 and 109 — on the back cover of all textbooks so that the students can ask for any help regarding the abuse of women and children,” Ali said.
“We are considering introducing a national emergency hotline from the next academic year also, so that students can ask for help to stop child marriage.”