A new mobile phone app being launched in Bangladesh has the potential to prevent child marriage at the click of a button.
The app has been created for use by the matchmakers, marriage registrars and solemnisers (Imams in the case of Muslim marriages and Pandits in case of Hindu marriages) who conduct marriages across the country.
It makes it possible for them – for the first time – to establish the true age of a bride or groom.
With more than 50% of all girls in the country being forced into marriage before the age of 18, the Government of Bangladesh has committed to finding innovative new ways to tackle the harmful practice.
Created by a government official in the remote district of Kurigram and developed to scale by Plan International, the app stopped over 3,700 underage marriages during its 6-month pilot period alone.
After a successful trial in 5 districts, including Kurigram, it is now being rolled out across the country in partnership with the Prime Minister’s Office.
Child marriage robs girls of their rights
Soumya Guha, Plan International’s Deputy Country Director in Bangladesh, says: “Child marriage remains unacceptably high in Bangladesh.
Child marriage has proven so difficult to tackle in the past because it is so deeply rooted in society.
“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. She is also more likely to face domestic and sexual violence. The practice limits her potential and robs her of her rights to safety, health and education.
“We need to do much more, much faster – and at scale – if we are to stamp this practice out.”
Using mobile technology to reach millions
The app tackles the issue of scale head on, taking advantage of the fact that almost 80% of the country’s 160 million people now own a mobile phone.
Although only 20% of the population have access to the internet, there is both an online and offline version of the app available, which means that even the hard-to-reach rural areas will be able to use the technology.
Reaching these communities is especially important as the rates of child marriage are even higher there. In rural parts of the country, 2 out of 3 girls are married before 18 despite child marriage being illegal in Bangladesh since 1929.
Changing beliefs about child marriage
“Child marriage has proven so difficult to tackle in the past because it is so deeply rooted in society,” says Guha.
we believe the app will get more people on the right side of the fight against child marriage.
“It takes time to change people’s minds, and with 160 million people in Bangladesh, it’s understandable that it is a slow process. But the government has set a target to eliminate child marriage by 2041, and if we are to achieve that, we need to up our game. The app could be the game changer that we need.”
“The beauty of the idea is in its simplicity,” says Mr Muhammad Abdul Halim, Director General of the Government of Bangladesh’s Governance Innovation Unit.
“It will take years to convince each of the 160 million people in Bangladesh that child marriage must not happen. A faster and more effective route would be to convince the 100,000 or so marriage registrars, solemnisers and matchmakers about the ill effects of child marriage and the crucial role they can play in preventing it.”
How the app works
The app – or SMS and USSD technology for those without internet connectivity – works by making it possible for marriage registrars, solemnisers or matchmakers to establish the true age of a bride and groom.
In the past, a physical copy of a birth certificate, school leaving certificate or national ID card was all that was required as proof of age.
However, these documents could easily be forged, which meant that many marriages were legally consecrated when the bride or groom was under age.
With the new app, this is no longer a possibility, as the marriage registrar and solemniser can digitally verify the document, thereby significantly reducing chances of fraud.
“Innovations are seldom scaled-up, but we are happy to partner with Plan International to take this app forward nationally to combat child marriage – a key commitment of the Government of Bangladesh” said Mr Mohammad Mustafizur Rehman, Director of the Government of Bangladesh’s Access to Information department.
Guha says: “When this approach is meshed with the other methods we are using to tackle the practice, we believe the app will get more people on the right side of the fight against child marriage and help us stamp it out.”