Bat­tling Norms

Though pri­vate and gov­ern­ment ef­forts have dili­gently tried to cre­ate so­cial aware­ness, child marriages continue to be preva­lent in Bangladesh.

Southasia - - Contents - By Atiya Ab­bas

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. Peace­ 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.

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