S O C I E T Y – B A N G L A D E S H
Nafees Abrar Islam, Eahsan Abedin
In a modern-day context, child marriage is a curse—a curse that has brought forth pain and sufferings for generations. It is akin to a plague, which once begins infesting, continues to hurt more and more people, and corrupts the society. It feeds off of the innocent girls of the country and perpetuates into greater repercussions.
According to UNICEF, “Child Marriage is defined as a marriage of a girl or boy before the age of 18 and refers to both formal marriages and informal unions in which children under the age of 18 live with a partner as if married but in reality, it is much more.”
This article will discuss the true scene and the circumstances which follow regarding child marriage and its effects on the minor girls.
Current conditions of child marriage in Bangladesh
Child marriage has long been a part of the problematic culture in Bangladesh and South Asian countries. It has been persisting in the Indian sub-continent for generations. Many movements and voices have been raised to abolish this detestable custom, yet it achieved only a limited amount of success.
Child Marriage has been illegal in Bangladesh since 1929. However, the existing legislative laws are rather loosely enforced. Parents continue to marry off their minor daughters secretly. The minimum age of marriage was set at 18 for women and 21 for men since the 1980s in Bangladesh. Yet, according to UNICEF, Bangladesh has the fourth highest rate of child marriage before the age of 18 in the world. As per girlsnotbrides.org, 59% of girls in Bangladesh are married before they turn 18, and 22% are married before the age of 15. This is despite the fact that the Child Marriage Restraint Act (1929) in Bangladesh states that child marriage is punishable. However, the penalties are weak, with the only imprisonment of up to one month, or a fine equivalent to $12.50 (roughly 1,060 BDT), or both [Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, 2010].
A report by Dhaka Tribune stated that not only Bangladesh has the fourth highest prevalence rate of child marriage in the world, but also the second-highest number of absolute child brides — 4,451,000.
The Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, pledged to take steps to reduce child marriage in Bangladesh and to ultimately end it by 2041 at the 2014 Girl Summit in London. She committed to end the marriage for girls under 15 and reduce it by more than one-third the number of girls between the ages of 15 and 18 who marry by 2021. As part of this effort, she pledged her government would revise Bangladesh’s law which prohibits child marriage, the Child Marriage Restraint Act (CMRA), before 2015, develop a national plan of action on child marriage by the end of 2014, and take other steps to change social norms and engage civil society in the fight against child marriage. Despite these, the honourable PM attempted to lower the age of marriage for girls from 18 to 16, which raised severe doubts about her commitment.
A national law was passed in 2004 that stated all births were to be legally registered in order to determine a girl’s age when she marries. This has resulted in high rates of birth registration in Bangladesh with registered births increasing from just 9.8 percent to 53.6 percent between 2006-2009. To counter child marriage, efforts have been made at grassroot levels. For instance, “Gram Sarkar” (village government bodies) have taken on the authority of combating child marriage. However stronger enforcement of national child marriage and protection laws is clearly needed.
Many local government officials also cease to function when the time comes for girls at risk. Taking the laws of Bangladesh into consideration, awareness is growing, provided that the marriage of girls under the age of 18 is illegal. But this awareness is fatally impeded by the widespread complicity by local government officials in facilitating child marriages. Interviewees consistently described local government officials issuing forged birth certificates, showing girls’ ages as over 18, in return for bribes of as little as US $1.30 (roughly 110 BDT). Even when marriages are prevented by local officials, as they sometimes are, families find it easy to hold the marriage in a different jurisdiction.
Causes of child marriage
Child marriage is a deeply rooted custom in Bangladesh because of a number of untold reasons. Some reasons are deeply intersected with cultural and religious superstitions, while others are related to family structure, economy, climate, and education.
Poverty contributes to child marriage in various ways as a major factor. 56% of the married women currently in the age between 20 and 24 are in the highest wealth quintile, while 81% of the married women in between the age of 20 and 24 are in the lowest wealth quintile—which clearly suggest that poverty or the socio-economic condition of the family clearly relates to child marriage.
Among the surveyed women, 2% of them suggest that dowry is a reason for child marriage. This is because of the common belief that as the child grows up, the dowry price will increase as she will become older and “less attractive”. As a result, young girls are forced to be married at an early age as the family believes that she will be less of a financial hassle to them. Again, for those families who live extremely below the poverty line and struggle even to feed their children, marry off their daughters and find a husband for them, simply so they can eat, as suggested by Human Rights Watch. All these contribute to the fact that the median age of marriage for girls in Bangladesh is 15 among the poor households, compared to 18 in rich households.
Researches suggest a very strong interrelation between child marriage and education. Women surveyed currently in their 20-24 and married off before they were 18, suggest that 86% of them had received no education and only 26% of them had completed secondary education or higher. According to the Human Rights Watch, many girls are married off because families don’t even have the economic capability to provide for their child’s additional costs like stationaries, exams, and uniforms, even when the education is “free”. Again, the median age of marriage between educated and uneducated girls are 15 and 20, respectively. Surveys also suggest that only 47.3% of the girls at the time of getting married knew about the legal age of getting married, although this number was higher in the urban areas than the rural ones (54.9% and 45.2% respectively). All these suggestions to the fact that girls receiving education, knowing their rights, and building skills for their livelihood can reduce child marriage by as much as one-third in Bangladesh, as told by girlsnotbrides.org.
Bangladeshi society asserts a lot of value on controlling the virginity of their daughters before marriage and often, families can use child marriage as a medium of controlling pre-marital sex. Studies suggest that when marriage ‘parents’ wish’ as a reason for child marriage, results are quite similar in both rural and urban areas. In both the regions, among surveyed women, parents wish was the most commonly asserted reason for child marriage (60% overall).
When it comes to choosing the ideal person to make decisions for the child’s marriage, the Bangladeshi society again inclines toward the parent’s decision rather than the girl herself both in urban and rural areas (58% and 63% respectively). Again, when it comes to parents, fathers are the decision-givers for their daughters when it comes to child marriage both in urban and rural areas (70.6% and 77.2%, respectively). This completely proves the general notion that even if the mother is against her daughter’s marriage, she will not be able to stop it despite being all aware of the consequences because of the lack of decision-giving rights given to mothers in the society as a whole.
Adding to that, when it comes to taking consent of girls before marriage 16.9% of women suggested that they did not have their consent in marriage whereas 78.9% suggested that they gave their consent. Again, 3.2% of women said that the decision to get married was taken by themselves. But giving consent does not mean that they personally agreed on getting married, as their personal opinions were influenced and pressurised by parental pressure, economic restraints, etc.
Climate change and natural disasters are an untold cause of child marriage in Bangladesh. Families living in extreme poverty are also often the front-liners to be impacted by any natural disaster. Poor families impacted by natural disasters, tend to be more deeply impacted by poverty and thus feel the urge to marry off their daughter as a coping mechanism to losing assets and saving money. This is particularly common among the families who were impacted severely by river erosions and thus devoid of their home, farmland, and assets, as suggested by the Human Rights Watch.
All in all, child marriage may also occur due to a number of other reasons such as, a groom being deemed “suitable” by the girl’s parents, the groom of an influential family proposing to marry the daughter of a less economically-fortuned family, the girl said of being of the appropriate age of marriage by elders and other decision-makers of the family, fear of sexual assaults and assurance that marriage will give social security, all of which are derivatives of the above-explained reasons.
The repercussions of child marriage
The effects or consequences of child marriage are as varied as the causes. Child marriage has physical, mental, societal, and even national level impacts on a developing country like Bangladesh.
Facts say that females under 15 are 5 times more likely to die while giving birth to a child than women in their 20s. Also, they face a higher risk of pregnancy-related injuries, such as obstetric fistula. Child brides often are unaware and also unable to negotiate about safer sexual practices and face a higher risk of STDs including HIV.
Physical consequences of child marriage reach beyond the brides themselves: children of child brides are 60 percent more likely to die in the first year of life than those born to mothers older than 19. Adding to that, families of child brides are more likely to be poor and unhealthy.
Also, child brides are far more likely to face physical violence from an older groom or their family in the form of beating or other form physical violence. Additionally, higher rates of domestic violence, risks associated with earlier pregnancies and lack of access to medical care may also result in premature death.
Not only are the victims denied the right to choose their own partner, but they are also marginalised and subjected to various religious, societal, political and cultural practices that fail to honour their basic human rights.
Psychologically, women married as children are more likely to suffer from symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and symptoms of depression.
Girls forced into child marriage are often caused to drop out of school. Thus, they cannot even discover or recognise their own selves and rights. They cannot even differentiate good from the bad, because they have not even been exposed to the norm at that point in their lives. So, even if they are mentally abused, tortured, or even ill, they don’t recognise and don’t seek help because they have not been exposed to the concept yet. Child brides are psychologically impacted as they drop out of school, lose ties and social connections with friends and family, and such. Such things force them into being mentally alone in addition to the extra torture of being a child bride. They have to live in an unknown environment at a tender age which ties into their mental health problems and many child brides become prone to depression as a consequence.
Because of such, a whole portion of the population is left behind and both the mental condition and the future of the child brides are left unseen and caged.
Gender-based violence due to Child marriage
Girls who are forced to marry early are denied their tender childhood. Once married, these girls have little or no access to education and economic opportunities. Child brides also face a higher risk of experiencing domestic and sexual violence. Child marriage is a harmful practice that deprives girls of their right to choose if, when, and whom to marry and what type of family to create. It also deprives girls of their rights to education, to health, and to live in security.
As for physical violence, girls who marry as children are particularly at risk of violence from their partners or their partners’ families. They are more likely to be beaten or threatened by their husbands than girls who marry later. As well as suffering physical violence, child brides often have a distorted sense of their own worth. They are more likely to believe that a man is justified in beating his wife than women who marry later. According to girlsnotbrides.org, globally 44% of girls aged 15-19 think a husband or a partner is justified in hitting or beating his wife or partner in certain circumstances. They also included that globally, most of the girls who marry before the age of 15, are almost 50% more likely to have experienced physical or sexual violence from a partner than girls who married after 18.
Again, Child brides often suffer emotional pressure from their families, and husbands or in-laws can limit their ability to make decisions about their own lives and bodies. Forced sexual initiation and early pregnancy often have lasting effects on girls’ mental health. Girls who are married off early in their childhood, are often affected by many harmful diseases. For instance, taken from girlsnotbrides.org growing evidence from sub-Saharan Africa shows that girls who marry early are at greater risk of contracting HIV/Aids or other sexually transmittable diseases.
In the case of intimate partner violence, Child Marriage is deemed to be a great risk factor.
Worldwide, Bangladesh has the highest prevalence of IPV and very early child marriage (before age 15). Researches show villages are the prime region where child marriage is more prevalent in Bangladesh.
It is also seen that almost one-half (44.5%) of women reported incident physical IPV, and 68.9% had married before age 18 and the village-level incidence of physical IPV ranges from 11.4% to 75%; the mean age at first marriage ranges from 14.8 to 18 years.
Child marriage disproportionately affects girls and has an impact on their mental health for the rest of their lives. Not only is their marriage done without their consent, their opinion or importance is not given in any matter whether it be familial, social or rooting down to their own physical change.
The girls at first don’t realise the great waves of hardship and pain they are thrown at when their family decides to wed them off at such a young age. When these girls unknowingly become the victims of child marriage, they are not treated properly at all by the in-laws. They do not respect her or her family and belittle them. This saddens the girl and she starts to feel insecure. Then they are forced to have sex with their husband although they are neither physically or psychologically fit for that. They are at times even raped. All these build more pressure upon the young minds of these girls.
One of the main reasons for which victims of child marriage go through more pain and hardship is when they are unable to give birth to a male child. Besides, these babies tend to be malnourished and oftentimes they don’t survive.
Long enough to enjoy the beauties of life, unable to protest and losing all their rights, and seeing their own children pass away before them, these girls go through more pain and suffering. These girls then become mentally depressed. Some even start to suffer from many mental diseases and unrest. Many times in the rural areas of Bangladesh, these children lose their will to live and die of suicide. Child marriage is a disease a sort of plague that once seen starts to grow and corrupt the society and slowly the country unless it is put to an end.
The writers belong to TDA Editorial Team.
This piece was created in collaboration with BRAC-CGSRHR, BLAST, and CREA under the project “Strengthening the voices and capacities for addressing gender based violence”.