Three years ago, when the Jamuna River wiped away their home for the fifth time, Momin Ullah and Rahima Begum could see only one option to reduce the family’s burden of poverty and to secure the future of their eldest daughter Nadia: marry her off at the age of 14.
“The river had eaten up our home and agricultural fields and made us extremely poor. There are few opportunities for employment here and we didn’t have enough to eat every day. So, we thought if we marry her off, she can have a good life,” Momin, 50, a day laborer and father of six children from Sirajgani district in northern Bangladesh, said in a recent interview.
The choice, however, proved to be the wrong one. Instead, things quickly got worse for the family.
*Nadia, now 16, mother of a one-and-half-year-old daughter, was forced to return to live with her parents after her husband refused to support her and his child.
“I went to primary school up to Class 5 and wanted to continue. But my parents could no longer afford school essentials although the school tuition is free,” she said.
“It was a really difficult and painful time for me when I gave birth to the child. I thought I was going to die,” she added, illustrating the serious physical consequences of early motherhood.
Such stories are all too common in Bangladesh, an impoverished Muslim-majority South Asian nation of 160 million, where half the population lives on less than US$2 dollars per day.
In past decades, Bangladesh has had formidable successes in development, despite endemic poverty, according to United Nations Development Program.
In the years between 1991 and 2010, poverty fell from 57 percent to 32 percent. During this period, infant mortality more than halved from 97 deaths per thousand live births to 37 per thousand. Over the same period, child mortality fell by two-thirds and maternal mortality fell by three-quarters.
Bangladesh is also one of the few Muslim countries in the world where more girls (over 90 percent) go to primary and secondary schools than boys.
However, there is a gaping hole in Bangladesh’s economic and social success stories — the widespread epidemic of child marriage.
About 29 percent of girls in Bangladesh get married before they are 15, the highest under-15 rate in the world. By the time the girls reach 18, the age they are supposed to be graduating from schools, 65 percent are already married, making Bangladesh fourth in the global child marriage index, after Niger, the Central African Republic and Chad, according to the UN children’s agency UNICEF.
Although child marriage is illegal and a punishable offense under the Child Marriage Restraint Act, it remains widespread in the country’s rural areas and urban slums, notes a recent report by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), released on June 9.
The report, titled Marry Before Your House is Swept Away: Child Marriage in Bangladesh, is based on 114 interviews conducted in five districts across the country, most of them with married girls, some as young as age 10. It says families often married off their daughters after losing homes or incomes to cyclones and other natural disasters that regularly hit the impoverished nation.
The factors driving child marriage in Bangladesh include poverty, natural disasters, lack of access to education, social pressure, stalking, harassment and dowry, it added.
“Child marriage is a serious problem in Bangladesh and it is one of the major causes that could undermine [the] country’s efforts in development and women[‘s] rights,” said Heather Barr, a senior HRW researcher on women’s rights in Asia who edited the report.
“In Bangladesh, we have found sometimes local officials try very hard to prevent child marriage, but unfortunately another official in the next office is selling forged birth certificates,” she said, speaking at a launch of the report in Dhaka. “People are getting mixed messages from officials, and not a consistent message from them that child marriage is not permitted and will not be permitted.”
“While child marriage is coming down in most countries in the world, Bangladesh still has the highest rate of girls getting married before 15. So, it is important to focus on why Bangladesh is doing worst in the world on this issue,” she added.
Insecurity and virginity
Apart from natural disasters and poverty, conservative patriarchal societies, social pressure and physical danger often drive Bangladeshi parents to marry off their daughters early.
Sexual abuse and rape is pervasive in Bangladesh, especially in rural areas, and pushes parents to give away their daughters into marriage.
In Bangladesh, there are “strong social pressures to get girls married, in part to prevent them from having a romantic or sexual relationship before marriage”, the report notes.
Parents rush to marry off their daughters early due to a belief that it will minimize the likelihood they will be abused or raped prior to finding a husband. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for fathers to marry off daughters who have been victims of sexual abuse as they are considered “tainted” or “dirty”.
“Our society considers virginity and marriage of a girl as a very important matter. So, even if the parents know their girl might not be happy or return home after marriage, they arrange the marriage, because of social insecurity,” said advocate Fawzia Karim, a Supreme Court lawyer and president of the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association, a leading women’s rights group.
“The police cannot provide security and the criminal justice system can’t deliver justice. In absence of all these, the parents think a divorced daughter is safer at home than a virgin daughter,” she added.
‘Saving face’ and promises not kept
At the July 2014 Girl Summit in London, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina promised to end marriage for girls under 15 by 2021 and also vowed to end all child marriage by 2041. As part of this effort, she pledged that her government would revise the Child Marriage Restraint Act and develop a National Action Plan by 2015 to prevent child marriage.
However, within two months of the summit’s conclusion, the government came up with a proposal to amend the law to lower the age of marriage for girls from 18 to 16, triggering an outpouring of criticism from women activists and rights groups.
The draft law, prepared by the Women and Children Affairs Ministry, is currently being reviewed by the Law Ministry, the last stop before it goes to parliament.
“If the government lowers the marriageable age for girls from 18 to 16, they will take away the right to education, employment and empowerment for the girls. They say they give [a] lot of emphasis on women development issues, but this step goes against their commitments,” she added.
Fawzia also added that by attempting to lower the marriageable age for girls, the government is shirking its responsibilities to tackle other socio-economic issue that drive child marriages.
“Child marriage is related to poverty, social insecurity and patriarchal mindset and unless they are checked properly, nothing will change. The government thinks if the girls are pushed to marriage even earlier, they can cover up all other failings,” Fawzia said.
Amid growing criticism, the government has recently backed off from lowering the age of marriage. But the government is keeping the door open indirectly with a planned special provision that will allow parents to marry of their daughters at the age of 16, with permission from the court and local government officials, in case there is a problem like rape or kidnapping, said Dr Abul Hossain deputy secretary of the Women and Children Affairs Ministry.
“All over the law, the age of marriage for men and women will be 21 and 18 respectively and it is final,” said Hossain.
“We have reviewed marriage laws in Europe and North America, where marriage at 16 is allowed with permission from the court and local administration. In case something special happens that can’t be prevented,” said Hossain.
He also disputed the rate of child marriage in Bangladesh.
“The UNICEF survey was done in 2011 and things have changed a lot since then. If there is a new survey conducted now, I think the rate will be down to 50 percent,” he said.
Bangladesh parliament has 50 reserved seats for women, but none of the parliamentarians have taken a stance against the move by the government. Several of them refused to comment on the issue when contacted by ucanews.com.
However, Rebecca Momin, one of the few directly elected women MPs, said that she does not support lowering the age of marriage personally, but she is not in a position to speak against it.
“Our prime minister is also the Minister of Women and Children Affairs, so I can’t comment on the matter,” said Momin, chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee of the Women and Children Affairs Ministry.
“I don’t know if lowering the age of marriage for girls from 18 to 16 would bring good or not. The people who proposed and drafted it are more intelligent and expert on legal matters than me. Once it becomes law, we must abide by it,” she said.
Asked if the move would encourage child marriage, Momin shook her head.
“Women are getting education and becoming aware. They can decide for themselves what the right age for marriage is,” she said, “the law just cannot do everything”.
Indeed, without strict enforcement, it appears unlikely laws would change things one way or another.
Momena Khatun, from Noakhali in southeastern Bangladesh, was just 11 when her parents stopped her from going to school and arranged for a marriage in order to cover her two brothers’ school expenses. The local marriage registrar refused to solemnize the marriage, but that proved a minor impediment.
“My parents bribed local officials to get a forged birth certificate that showed my age was over 18 and I was married off,” said Momena, now 13, who lives with her husband and in-laws.
For Nadia, meanwhile, with her own life already ruined by child marriage, all she wants is to save her younger sister and daughter from the same path.
“My sister goes to primary school and I will help her continue with education, so she can find a job and become self-reliant. I will do the same for my daughter,” she said.
*Names of the child marriage victims have been changed to protect their identities
– UCA News