According to the State of World Population 2019 report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), 59 percent of all marriages in Bangladesh in 2016–2017 were with adolescent girls. Despite efforts by both public and private sectors to lower the child marriage rate, it is still the highest in South Asia and ranks fourth globally. In addition, around 65 percent of citizens in the country who are not using/accessing Internet do not have the means to obtain information on government services, report social problems, and provide feedback on the public services they receive. These underprivileged populations are the major victims of child marriage because they have no access to different media who provide awareness campaigns on child marriages and do not know how to obtain government help to combat this scourge.
Towards a Solution
To address this challenge, the Aspire to Innovate (a2i) Programme introduced the ‘333--National Helpline for Information, Services and Grievance Redress’ (‘the 333 National Helpline’). It was inaugurated on 12 April 2018. Today, in Bangladesh, curbing child marriage, preventing violence against and other crimes against women and children, and receiving government information and services can all be achieved with a single phone call to the 333 national helpline.
This helpline is fully capable of efficiently ensuring information, services, grievance redress and consultancy services for every citizen, which reduces the time, cost and visits (TCV) of citizens. In particular, 333 National Helpline plays an important role in lowering the early marriage rate in Bangladesh, saving underaged girls from this social problem, and providing them with administrative support so that they can continue their education.
The platform aims to:
- reduce the child marriage rate, verbal and sexual harassment, and violence against women to pave the way for women’s empowerment;
- provide administrative support to enhance the understanding of parents of adolescents of the value of continuing education and the dangers of early teenage marriage;
- ensure access of vulnerable citizens to government information and emergency contact numbers of government institutions, public representatives and government staff;
- implement a Citizens’ Grievance Redress System to address any complaint, feedback or suggestions about government services and to provide consultancy services.
The initiative offers a combination of approaches and methodologies that involve a baseline study on the socio-economic status of gender, a public-private partnership strategy, the adoption of technical tools, the development of the content management system (CMS) platform, content development, training, sharing of knowledge, cooperation and coordination, among others.
The Government teamed up with Robi, an experienced private mobile phone operator, for the technical support, and Genex Infosys Ltd., a leading call centre service provider, to ensure the 333 National Helpline operation. a2i ensures that the operations of the helpline are integrated with all ministries, divisions and directorates, and in particular, with public and private agencies working to prevent all forms of violence against women and children. a2i also ensures regular capacity development of the service providers. After receiving a call about an imminent child marriage, the call is directed to the concerned authority, which takes prompt action to stop the marriage. The Cabinet Division of Bangladesh regularly monitors whether the complaints received are properly investigated and resolved.
The a2i initiative addresses Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 (Gender equality) and is aligned with targets 5.1, 5.2, 5.3, 5.B and 5.C. It provides an inclusive service for all minor girls around the country with legal action to stop their forced marriages or any harassment or violence against them, and encourages them to continue their education despite social discrimination. To date, 37 percent of the total calls made to the 333 National Helpline are made by female citizens of the country. From April 2018 to January 2020, with its help, a total of 4,803 child marriages were stopped and 2,892 complaints of violence against women and children resolved. Most of the girls who escaped child marriage are continuing their education after successfully convincing their families about the need to become skilled workers for the future.
It also addresses SDG 16 (Peace, justice and strong institutions), targets 16.2, 16.5, 16.7 and 16.10 by providing transparent government information and services to over 4.2 million citizens and acting on complaints on over 17,000 social crimes. In addition, this helpline has led to a savings of 1.6 million person-days, US$25.6 and 4.2 million visits of citizens to obtain government information and services, and to report social crimes.
Within this short period of operation, the 333 National Helpline has become a sustainable initiative. A public-private partnership has been established to build the ecosystem of all operational levels. This platform does not depend on any other infrastructure to run its system. The integration of the helpline by the Cabinet Division with the central monitoring of the Grievance Redress System (GRS) of Bangladesh improved the latter’s effectiveness and strength. This enables citizens to receive assistance from the Government to resolve various social problems and also receive the public services with the minimum TCV. Moreover, this platform does not need to use any additional resources to advance its operation. The success of the 333 National Helpline also ensures the availability of a government fund for financial sustainability.
This platform is highly replicable across the globe. Recently, Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), Philippines has shown interest in replicating this initiative in their region. Countries such as Chad, India, Mali, Nepal and Niger, with a high percentage of child marriage, can also significantly benefit from establishing a similar platform in their own country. The following conditions need to be met to ensure its replicability: adequate government funding; public-private partnerships; ownership by the government; regular monitoring by the government; CMS/GRS Platform development; integration with relevant public-private agencies; the adoption of technical tools; and capacity development of service providers.