Though private and government efforts have diligently tried to create social awareness, child marriages continue to be prevalent in Bangladesh.
The practice remains a serious hindrance in Bangladesh
Ever since Mohammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, Bangladesh gained an international reputation for furthering human rights and strengthening female empowerment. But internal problems continue to cripple the poverty struck nation. One of the most alarming human rights abuses in Bangladesh is child marriage. Statistics revealed that 60 percent of girls become wives before their 18th birthday, meaning that Bangladesh has the highest rate of child marriages. The legal age for marriage is 18, yet many parents continue to marry off their girls when they are 16 or younger. A BBC news report found that 20 percent of girls are married even before they turn 15.
Severe gender biases that plague South Asia are the leading reasons for human rights abuses. In some nations, girls are not considered worthy to even merit birth certificates, which explain why so many cases of child marriages go unreported. Authorities have difficulties enforcing the law and traditional thinking on the part of parents convinces young girls to agree to an early marriage.
Another problem is that of dowry. For many poor families, dowry is a burden that they must start preparing for, soon after the birth of each girl-child. Cultural restrictions on women exacerbate the fact that girls have no position in the family except for being dependant on their father’s support.
Mirna Ming Ming Evora of the NGO Plan International calls this “a new kind of slavery.” She further adds that girls do not earn income in this culture and all her interactions with child brides has taught her one thing: that they lost their childhood too early.
Nazrul Islam, a technical officer at Plan Bangladesh says that when young girls become mothers they tend to suffer from health problems. As BBC reports, when Poppy, a twelve-year-old girl started suffering from internal injuries that left her unable to restrain her body’s natural fluids like urine, she lost her baby because it was stillborn. Her husband, ten years older than her, abandoned her when he came to know about the illness. Through Poppy’s disillusionment stems sad advice that young girls should not get married too early because the consequences are terrible.
Twelve-year-old Oli Ahmed is staunchly against child marriages. He has taken it upon himself to campaign to elders and explain to them why they should not marry their girls too young. He gets his motivation from the unjust treatment of a girl who was like a sister to him. She was forced into marriage and he never saw her again. Oli consequently formed a group of children under Plan International and goes door to door, talking to parents, in his slum in Dhaka. He hectors parents as to why there is no birth certificate for their daughter and then registers them immediately. Ahmed’s persistence has paid off as Plan International has reported that child marriages in the area have dropped by almost 50 percent.
A BBC news report also highlighted 13-year-old, Jemi. Jemi’s mother insisted that she loved her daughter and that Jemi would be disgraced if she did not get married. Crippling poverty prevented Jemi from attending school. However, protests by authorities and NGOs convinced Jemi’s mother to change her decision.
Young girls face numerous difficulties in Bangladesh. One of the major causes of poverty in Bangladesh is the marriage dowry. Studies have reported that more than 35 million people in Bangladesh face acute poverty and hunger. More alarming is the fact that dowry was 200 times the daily wage in 2008. With the daily wage reported as $2, dowry can sometimes go up to 20,000 takas (approximately $300). Even though giving dowry is illegal in Bangladesh, the practice continues in the rural areas. Paradoxically, the leading cause for poverty is dowry and yet rural families insist on marrying off their girls as soon as possible.
With three-quarters of the population living in abject poverty, the problem lies in the traditional and culturally backward attitudes of rural societies. Plagued by floods and cyclones, Bangladesh’s urban centers now cater to sprawling populations thus giving rise to large slums and illegal settlements. It has taken the efforts of Plan International and UNICEF to help bring a turnabout in these societies. Individuals like Oli and Evora are doing their part in creating awareness and showing the locals that it is not morally correct to marry girls at such a young age. The Bangladesh chapter of Plan International holds numerous workshops and events as well as street theatre performances to create social awareness regarding child marriages.
So far such initiatives have had limited difference in society. Hasina Banu, a mother in Ghazipur had arranged for a child marriage for her elder daughter. She later made a decision not to marry her younger daughter before the age of 18. Yet such stories are the exception rather than the norm. Peacewomen.org reported in May 2012, that the situation for girls aged 16 and above still remains unchanged. Private and government initiatives have certainly decreased the rate of teenage female child marriages but their efforts remain limited amongst older adolescents. Only when this age group is also targeted will a change in the reduction of child marriages be felt as a whole. Atiya Abbas freelances for various publications and writes extensively on effects of mass media.