The non child brides of Bangladesh

Namira Hossain describes the changes in attitudes which have brought about a decline in the number of child marriages in our country

Photos by Ariba Tahrim Chaudhury

non-child-bridesThink about the life of a typical teenage girl. What does she do everyday? She wakes up in the morning, gets ready for school, studies for exams, and talks to her friends about everything from clothes and makeup to her dreams of becoming an electrical engineer. Youth and the teenage years are precious times – for us to develop further as individuals, discover where our interests lie, and yes sometimes even explore the intricacies of relationships with the opposite sex. Yet, many girls in Bangladesh are deprived of this youth and relegated to a life with her husband and in-laws where she is treated as a menial worker and compelled to deal with situations that she is not mentally or physically ready for.
According to a report published by Save The Children, currently 43.6 per cent of the population of Bangladesh is made of adolescent children, amongst which 66 per cent of girls are married before the age of 15. The current law forbidding the marriage of minors below the age of 18 for girls and 21 for boys is frequently ignored and rarely enforced.
non-child-brides2Child marriage obviously affects the society in a detrimental manner and also our economy suffers as a result of it. As young girls are forced into marriages with older men, the power imbalance can hardly be ignored – and the girls are exposed to various health problems and very often, abuse. Our culture encourages women to be submissive and passive, especially young females, so often, they are left with no say in decisions that are relevant to their own lives. The numbers of dropouts for girls in secondary schools in Bangladesh are staggering, according to news reports around 56.43 per cent of girls dropped out in 2011. This means that the country is missing out on a lot of potential income from the girls had they completed their schooling.
There are various complex factors for which child marriage is rampant in our country. Often parents are unable to provide for the children or pay for education costs so they seek a husband for their daughters to help ease the burden. Even when education is free, parents are often unable to pay for other assorted costs of keeping their daughters in school such as stationary etc so they are forced to leave school and then married off into another family. Another factor is the patriarchal attitudes that leave young girls vulnerable to sexual harassment and the lack of cooperation from the police to deal with this issue prompts child marriage as parents believe that the husbands will protect their daughters.
non-child-brides3Of course, social pressures and traditions such as paying dowry also play a huge factor among parents wanting to marry their daughters off. Another surprising reason is the prevalence of natural disasters in our country, especially for people who are afraid of losing their home and hence end up arranging marriages for their daughter at even younger ages.
With all these obstacles playing a role in the marriages of young girls, and the government trying to push the age limit for marriage even further down to 16 years, it almost seems that there is no hope for reducing this antiquated practice where girls are basically exchanged as commodities from one household to another. Bangladesh has the fourth highest number of instances of child marriages in the world, and any hope for reducing this has to come about through a drastic change in mentalities, and every small step is a milestone.
Last year, Save The Children launched a one year project called ‘That’s no way to marry’. Their strategic planning which consisted of developing awareness around Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, engagement with the local community, creating access to health facilities, improving the economic situation of the young girls through vocational training managed to reach around 2,500 unmarried and married vulnerable young girls living in the slum areas in Barisal.
non-child-brides4Even though the number seems small in comparison with the problem at hand, more importantly through their active community engagement they were able to change the attitudes of the community and religious leaders and high school teachers, and also motivated the fathers and husbands of these young girls to treat the young girls with more respect. This resulted in 74 per cent of the young girls being confident enough to refuse their own child marriage and 13 instances were actually stopped in the process.
Ariba Tahrim Chaudhury, Project Officer, Advocacy and Campaign, shares her thoughts on how a shift in thinking was required in order for them to achieve their results. She says that community engagement is imperative to trigger behavioural change. ‘If we just spoke to only the girls, there would be no point. She would still have to adjust and adapt to the world around her,’ she offers. Surprisingly one of the findings through the project was that a lot of the marriages were consensual. The girls were not forced into marrying, rather eloped themselves as a result of love affairs and relationships being considered taboo so the girls believed it was their only option.
For this reason, it was important to reach out to the community and ask them to show support and guidance to their daughters rather than shunning them fearing disrepute over relationships. Providing adequate health care facilities also greatly improved the lives of the young girls and women who often had to give birth in horrible conditions. The family planning meetings and counselling sessions helped the parents get on board because ultimately they also want better lives for their daughters – they were able to see the bigger picture that continuing their education would also enable them to earn more and contribute towards the family.
non-child-brides5The project also engaged with the girls and made them aware of the serious repercussions such as the health complications they could be facing as a result of getting married so early. ‘They were in a box, without knowing what was out there,’ says Chowdhury. Hence the project also concentrated on offering ICT training to the girls and developing their entrepreneurial skills and helping them in setting up small businesses to create financial independence. They also became involved in the project as well, talking to other girls and discouraging them to get married.
Moni Begum, 16, who works with Save The Children on helping to reduce child marriage talks about why she thinks marriages should be delayed until girls are older and why girls need to understand their rights. ‘My sister got married very young and then it turned out her husband had mental health problems and he left her,’ she shares. ‘If I had gotten married young, I would not know how to run a family,’ says Moni. She goes on, ‘I would not be able to live life according to my dreams and I have so many dreams.’ She understands that many young girls relate with her which is why she has chosen to work with Save The Children on this project.
This enabled her the opportunity to go to New York City and attend the United Nations General Assembly where she got to rub shoulders with the likes of UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Malala Yousafzai. ‘I am so grateful I had this opportunity, it was like a fantasy, before that I had never even imagined I would get to come to Dhaka much less New York,’ she says.
Moni Begum asked David Cameron how it can be possible to reduce child marriage in Bangladesh, and he replied that it can be achieved through education and creating awareness within the whole community. Begum says she wants all girls to know their rights – that they have the right to an education and the right to say no to marriage. She hopes to continue her studies and become a lawyer and work with young girls.
With recent headlines splashed in the foreign media that depict the dire situation of child brides in our country, it is important to look at the silver lining in the clouds. Chaudhury believes that even if the change is marginal, it needs to be addressed because that is the only way to push it further. Even with all the seemingly insurmountable hurdles, it does not take more than logic and respect to change old behaviours and our ideas of social norms. She says, ‘our whole lives we are conditioned to just accept everything, but we need critical thinking to improve our lives.’

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