Bangladeshi girls get support to prevent child marriage
Nargis Begum, 19, used to dream of becoming a teacher. Now a mother twice over, she has had to rethink her life.
“I was studying in grade 8 when child marriage shattered all my dreams,” she says. Like many girls in Bangladesh, she was only 16 when her parents arranged for her to marry an older man, even though child marriage is illegal.
“There was no scope to say no. I felt very bad, because instead of going to school I had to go to my father-in-law's house and to do all the household work,” she says.
It is estimated that two-thirds of girls in Bangladesh are married before the legal minimum age of 18, and many before they are even 16. An additional 8% marry between the ages of 18 and 20. The girls lose out on years of school, have health complications from having babies too young, and are generally poorly equipped to deal with married life on many levels. Their babies are often born premature, or have other health problems. The whole of society suffers as a result.
“When a child becomes a mother due to child marriage, she is always sickly,” says Nazrul Islam, the technical officer for Plan Bangladesh's Community-Managed Health Care Program in Lalmonirhat. “This leads to malnourished and anemic babies who are ultimately a burden in the family,” he says.
According to some reports, it’s estimated that across the country two-thirds of girls become pregnant by the age of 18, almost always from underage marriages.
Getting the right paperwork
The legal age for marriage in Bangladesh is 18 for women and 21 for men, but it is seldom enforced. Part of the problem is that many girls don't have birth certificates, so authorities cannot enforce the law, and girls and their parents find it difficult to resist early marriage.
Plan International has been working with national partners and local authorities since 2005 to issue birth certificates to newborn girls, and retroactive ones to older girls who did not get one when they were born.
So far, over 6.2 million birth certificates have been issued across the districts of Nilphamari, Lalmonirhat, Dinajpur and Gazipur.
Enforcing the law is essential, but it is also important to educate communities. Child marriage is commonly accepted in both Muslim and Hindu communities in Bangladesh, and is closely tied to the practice of dowry, which was adopted in the 1960s.
Plan Bangladesh has been working with the state authorities, or upazilas, to hold workshops and public events, including popular theatre and local workshops, to inform people of the importance of waiting until girls are 18 to marry them.
Aklima Begum, from the far northern district of Lalmonirhat, was also in the 8th grade when her father tried to arrange her marriage in 2008. The local children's organization was unable to dissuade her father, she says, “But before the marriage registration, the chairman of the union parishad came to my house and my father at last was convinced and the marriage was stopped.”
“Now I am continuing my education in the 11th grade.” She is also a volunteer with a home-based early learning centre, and a member of a children's organization.
“The community has become more aware of the importance of stopping child marriage,” says Abu Hanif, monitoring and evaluation coordinator at Plan's program unit in the district of Lalmonirhat, although he adds that the practice has not yet been eradicated across the district.
In Jaldhaka sub-district, just to the west of Lalmonirhat, the program has been even more successful. “As a child-marriage-free sub-district, we hope we will continue to establish child rights with the participation of all stakeholders,” said Rakibul Bahar, the deputy program unit manager. Parents are also taking the message on board.
“Child marriage is a curse for a girl. It takes away health and happiness,” said Hasna Banu, a Gazipur mother who arranged a child marriage for her first daughter. “Later I did not arrange a marriage for my younger daughter until she was 18.”
“I did a very wrong thing by forcing my daughter to marry when she was underage,” says Karim Mondol, a father from Gazipur. “Now I am repenting for this. My daughter could not continue her school and she is suffering from emotional abuse. I spoiled my daughter's life.”
For those who were married as children, Plan is working to restore their rights wherever possible. Some have a positive message to give from their experience.
“I had no chance to express my feelings and opinion,” one woman says of her marriage at 16. “Now that I am an adult, I am working with community people and always trying to make the community aware of the importance of ending child marriage.