Bangladeshi girls ha­rassed into mar­riage

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

It was af­ter floods washed away her fam­ily’s river­front land in Bangladesh’s north­ern Ja­malpur dis­trict that Br­ishti Rafiq’s wid­owed fa­ther brought her to live in Dhaka. “We couldn’t sur­vive like that. We had no prop­erty or any­thing,” she said of her for­mer home. She was only three or four years old when they came to the city, but her fa­ther soon ar­ranged a job for her, as a maid for another fam­ily. As she grew, Br­ishti hoped to be a doc­tor. But like many young girls in Bangladesh, she faced a dif­fer­ent fu­ture: Mar­riage at 13, in a union ar­ranged by her fa­ther.

In this South Asian nation, it is il­le­gal for girls un­der the age of 18 to marry. But de­spite government cam­paigns, many par­ents do not heed the law. Ac­cord­ing to data pub­lished in 2015 by UNICEF, the UN chil­dren’s agency, 29 per­cent of Bangladeshi girls were mar­ried by the time they were 15, the world’s high­est rate. The fig­ure has since dropped, in part be­cause of ef­forts to end the prac­tice, but re­mains at a wor­ry­ing 18 per­cent.

Ex­perts, how­ever, fear that growing mi­gra­tion to al­ready over­crowded Dhaka, as cli­mate change pres­sures ex­ac­er­bate poverty, could re­sult in a new surge in child mar­riages. Early mar­riage not only de­prives girls of ed­u­ca­tion and op­por­tu­ni­ties but in­creases their risk of death or se­vere child­birth in­juries if they have ba­bies be­fore their bod­ies are ready, ex­perts say. When Br­ishti was told she would marry, she op­posed the match - but her fa­ther would not lis­ten. “He got me mar­ried in such a hurry. He didn’t ask a lot of ques­tions,” said the girl, who is to­day 14. “Just like you got a chicken from the mar­ket and you have to cook it tonight,” she said, mat­ter of factly.

The mar­riage didn’t work out - her hus­band al­ready had another wife, and Br­ishti’s fam­ily couldn’t pay the dowry her new in-laws de­manded. The cou­ple di­vorced, and Br­ishti moved in with her half sib­lings and an aunt - un­til a neigh­bor tried to sex­u­ally as­sault her one night. Now, di­vorced and alone at 14, she lives as a lodger in the gar­ment fac­tory where she works each day, one of a growing flood of girls first set adrift by ex­treme weather and mi­gra­tion, and then trapped by poverty and de­ci­sions be­yond their con­trol. Among fam­i­lies who have mi­grated to Bangladesh’s cap­i­tal from ru­ral ar­eas, of­ten as a re­sult of los­ing their land or crops to harsh weather, her ex­pe­ri­ence is in­creas­ingly com­mon, ac­tivists say.

The flood of ru­ral fam­i­lies mov­ing to Dhaka’s slums is growing as peo­ple lose their homes, farms and jobs to river-bank ero­sion and cli­mate change pres­sures, such as wors­en­ing floods and droughts and more in­tense storms. Re­search car­ried out among ado­les­cent girls in the south­ern dis­trict of Bar­guna by the char­ity Plan In­ter­na­tional found that, af­ter pow­er­ful Cy­clone Sidr hit in 2007, a “sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion” of school­girls mi­grated to towns to work as maids or in the gar­ment in­dus­try.

Most never re­turned to school - and the num­ber of child mar­riages surged as well, the re­port said. Ac­tivists say that, once in crowded cities like Dhaka, girls face an even greater risk of early mar­riage and sex­ual vi­o­lence than they would have in their vil­lages back home. In a 2015 sur­vey by char­ity Ac­tionAid, 84 per­cent of girls and women in­ter­viewed in seven Bangladeshi cities re­ported be­ing the sub­ject of ver­bal abuse and sex­ual re­marks, while 56 per­cent said they had been sub­ject to sex­ual ha­rass­ment in a public place, known in the re­gion as “eve teas­ing”.

“The Dhaka I grew up in and the Dhaka of to­day are worlds apart. It was far safer then,” said Sha­hana Sid­diqui, a gen­der spe­cial­ist at the James P. Grant School of Public Health at Dhaka’s BRAC Univer­sity. To­day, “get­ting ha­rassed on the streets is just part of women’s lives”, she said. Par­ents fear their daugh­ters are more likely to be ex­posed to the ad­vances of men in the city, which could tar­nish their rep­u­ta­tion. Early mar­riage is seen as one way of deal­ing with that prob­lem. “An un­mar­ried girl get­ting sex­u­ally as­saulted be­comes an is­sue of fam­ily honor,” Sid­diqui ex­plained. “In­stead of say­ing the boys shouldn’t be do­ing it, the idea is, ‘Let’s get the girls mar­ried off.’”

Br­ishti’s friend Razia Ak­ter, a mi­grant from Pol­bandha vil­lage, also in Ja­malpur, is now un­der pres­sure to marry too. Her fa­ther, Mo­hammed Azim, has al­ready given away his el­dest daugh­ter in mar­riage, and thinks it is now time for Razia, 14, to wed as well. “If my daugh­ter is walk­ing down the road talk­ing to a boy and some­one sees, they will tell ev­ery­one my daugh­ter is see­ing him. Then your honor is im­me­di­ately lost,” he said. “As soon as peo­ple start think­ing this has hap­pened, ev­ery­thing is fin­ished, you will lose face.”

Ac­cord­ing to Bangladeshi hu­man rights group Ain o Sal­ish Ken­dra (ASK), 10 Bangladeshi girls com­mit­ted sui­cide in 2015 af­ter suf­fer­ing sex­ual ha­rass­ment, and five were mur­dered when they protested about be­ing ha­rassed, based on in­for­ma­tion gath­ered from news­pa­per re­ports.

Millions to Mi­grate

The stresses drag­ging girls into early mar­riage could deepen if - as ex­pected - wors­en­ing ex­treme weather, sealevel rise and river­bank ero­sion drive in­creas­ing num­bers of peo­ple into Bangladesh’s al­ready packed slums seek­ing work, ex­perts warn. Saleemul Huq, di­rec­tor of the Dhak­abased In­ter­na­tional Cen­tre for Cli­mate Change and De­vel­op­ment, said that in the past 200 years, Bangladesh ex­pe­ri­enced an aver­age of one ma­jor flood ev­ery 20 years. But in the past two decades, he said, the fre­quency has in­creased to one ev­ery five years.

As Bangladesh’s dry sea­son gets longer and its rainy sea­son wet­ter, Huq pre­dicted some 10 mil­lion more mi­grants would head to Bangladesh’s cities in the next two decades. Most will likely end up in Dhaka, swelling its al­ready cramped pop­u­la­tion of around 18 mil­lion, he added. “Dhaka is the fastest-growing megac­ity in the world,” Huq said. Ef­forts by the government and aid agen­cies are un­der­way to help peo­ple adapt to cli­mate change where they are liv­ing - from pro­vid­ing fresh drink­ing wa­ter in ar­eas where wa­ter sup­plies are con­tam­i­nated by salt to con­serv­ing wa­ter for ir­ri­ga­tion in drought-prone ar­eas, and in­tro­duc­ing hardier crop va­ri­eties.

“Un­for­tu­nately it is a los­ing bat­tle,” said Huq. “Cli­mate change is al­ways a step ahead of what we can do in or­der to com­bat it.” Peo­ple liv­ing in the most haz­ardous ar­eas bear the brunt of cli­mate-linked disas­ters, and “they tend to be the poor­est peo­ple of the com­mu­nity”, he added.

Af­ter Razia’s fam­ily lost their home to river ero­sion, her fa­ther worked lo­cally as a farm labourer but couldn’t sup­port his wife and three chil­dren. He brought them to Dhaka three years ago, where they could at least earn enough to eat. Razia’s par­ents no longer have the money to send her to school. Back home she was a good stu­dent, but her dreams of be­com­ing a teacher - some­thing her for­mer school­teacher en­cour­aged - are out of reach for now, she says. — Reuters

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