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Bangladesh's child brides

May 24, 2012

The practice of child marriage is a much-talked and much-censured one. In Bangladesh, it is especially prevalent due to social attitudes and often lack of education. In this sense, the government needs to step up its efforts to eradicate this rampant practice to ensure the well-being of its young citizens.

Dhaka: Mosamad Mounjera Khatun watched as her future was decided without her consent. Her parents had arranged for her to be married, though she was only 14 years old. Like most young brides, she would have been forced to drop out of school and work in her in-laws' household. "I wore a sullen face," said Mosamad. "My friends asked me why I looked so unhappy. I told them that I want to get on with my studies but my parents want me to get married. But I do not want to get married now."

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This excerpt from a 2006 news article published by UNICEF Bangladesh only reinforces the fact that when it comes to marrying off young daughters even before they can understand or handle the responsibilities of married life, without any thought of the tragic effects it can have on their future, Bangladeshis are second to none in South Asia. 

Sample this: According to a World Vision report, globally an estimated 3,500 girls marry before the age of 15 every day, while another 21,000 girls marry before they turn 18. Ian Wishart of Plan International Australia, one of the world's largest children's development organisations, provides more information that reveals the gravity of the situation. According to him, "one-in-seven of the world's girls will become a child bride by the age of 15" something that often has "devastating consequences" for them. 

South Asia has one of the world's highest rates of early female marriage. Despite a rising tide of outrage and with a law in place, child marriages still thrive in Bangladesh, pushing girls into a cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and serious health problems. A new report, 'Empowering Girls: What the Commonwealth Can Do to End Early and Forced Marriage', released by Plan International last year, shows that 32 per cent of girls in Bangladesh are married off before they are 15. The 2011 World Development Report states that about 80 per cent of the girls in Bangladesh get married before they reach the age of 18 – the legal age for marriage. Remarks Former Secretary M. Fazlur Rahman, "This is, of course, a shocking disclosure. We have not been able to check the menace despite having a law." 

Here's what the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929, amended through the Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Ordinance 1984, states: 'Whoever, being a male below twenty-one years of age, or being a female below eighteen years of age, contracts a child marriage shall be punishable with simple imprisonment which may extend to one month, or with fine which may extend to one thousand Taka, or with both.'

Why then does the number of child marriages remain high? According to several studies, poverty, superstition, and lack of awareness are the main reasons behind the increasing number of early marriages. Moreover, factors like the parental desire to ensure that sexual relations take place only within marriage,  the lack of educational and employment opportunities for girls and the sense that the main "value" of a woman is as a wife and mother, only perpetuate the practice.

This particularly holds true for the multitudes that reside in the remote villages. Says Rahman, who is also Chairman of Communication and Media Research Initiative (CAMRI), a Dhaka-based research organisation, "While the reality is that early marriage is rampant..., rural areas have a higher rate of forced marriages." 
This fact is confirmed by 'The State of the World Children 2011', which reveals that rural women marry earlier than their urban counterparts, the premature marriage rate being 70 per cent and 53 per cent, respectively. Young girls are often regarded as an economic burden and early marriage is considered the best solution to get rid of this 'extra load'. Parents believe that the early marriage of their daughters – while they are still adolescents or children – will benefit them both financially and socially. 

Why then does the number of child marriages remain high? According to several studies, poverty, superstition, and lack of awareness are the main reasons behind the increasing number of early marriages. Moreover, factors like the parental desire to ensure that sexual relations take place only within marriage,  the lack of educational and employment opportunities for girls and the sense that the main "value" of a woman is as a wife and mother, only perpetuate the practice.

In a news report published by 'The Independent' last year, advocate Salma Ali, executive director of Bangladesh Women Lawyers Association, asserts, "Though there is legal prohibition against child marriage, parents or guardians think that marrying their girls off at an early age would relieve them of their economic burden and protect their daughters from the dangers of sexual assault."

The need of the hour, therefore, is not some random, one-off campaign that is initiated by the government, but a social movement against this 'tradition'. There is also a need for greater political will to deal with the problem. Rahman says, "People have never taken this issue very seriously. No political party has taken proper action against it; neither has anyone in the legal fraternity. There's a sense that it won't be possible to uproot such an entrenched custom."

Salma Ali adds to Rahman's observation. She says, "If the law was properly implemented, a great number of child marriages could have been stopped. The Quazi (marriage registrar), in many cases, completes all marriage formalities in exchange for money without considering the age of consent."

So, "if the government wants to improve its poor record, it must increase pressure on law enforcing agencies to take more responsibility and take action against underage marriages," believes Rahman.
Unfortunately, the half-hearted law is part of the problem, too. Says a senior police official, on request of anonymity, "The law itself is weak. Parents can theoretically be sentenced to one month's imprisonment, but rarely are the offenders are punished." And even though the act of marrying children is against the law, the marriage itself is valid once performed, even if the child is as young as five years old.
The police do not have the authority to arrest anyone about to take part in a marriage, and the bureaucratic procedures that can prevent one are so complicated that most weddings are formalised by the time the papers are ready. Says the police official, "We have a limited number of personnel, so we have to decide where the thrust of policing should be. If we intervene in child marriages, we are only met with anger and resistance from everyone. We may be right, but we are not welcomed in society because most people do not consider this to be an evil."

He says that for every argument that child welfare agencies make, parents have a counter argument: It makes economic sense to marry off all the girls in one family in order to avoid the cost of hosting multiple weddings; finding a husband swiftly for a girl removes the burden of feeding and educating her; and marriage relieves parents of the responsibility of preserving a girl's 'honour' throughout her adolescence. "But even if it's true that the girl remains at home till she reaches puberty – which I don't believe is usually the case – even a girl of 12 or 13 years is far too young to be ending childhood," he adds. 

Whatever justifications parents claim for the practice, child marriage poses serious physical dangers to its young victims. UNICEF's Karin Hulsof sheds light on some of the tragic health risks, "The younger a girl is when she gets pregnant, the greater the health risk to her and her child. The mortality rate among child brides and their infants is very high. Besides, there's an increased vulnerability to sexually-transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS."

So, families are willing to ignore every danger, every problem that their daughters may face after early marriage simply because they cannot afford to keep them, and because educating them is difficult and unaffordable. And therein lies a possible solution to this regressive social practice. Ensuring education for girls, harsher action against sexual harassment and more employment opportunities for women could be the few first steps in the right direction. 

 
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