When Tanzila’s grandmother pressed the phone to her ear, the voice on the other line told her: “If you don’t marry off your granddaughter, we’ll kill you, and we’ll kidnap her.”
It wasn’t the first call like this. Tanzila and her grandmother were relentlessly threatened by unknown men — not just over the phone, but also when Tanzila walked to and from school — because she wasn’t married yet, at 14 years old.
“It used to really disturb us,” Tanzila says. “I avoided talking to anyone at that time.”
This harassment and intimidation aimed at girls like Tanzila for being unmarried is often referred to as “eve teasing” in Bangladesh where she lives, as well as some other South Asian countries. It’s an umbrella term used to describe sexual harassment, sexual assault or other forms of violence toward girls who don’t have husbands.
“Eve teasing” is a big reason why many girls and young women in rural Bangladesh drop out of school. Because of parents’ fear for their daughters, or girls’ own shame, they decide it’s not worth the risk of traveling to school and getting an education. Instead, families feel forced to marry off their daughters to put an end to the harassment.
And that’s exactly what happened to Tanzila. She was being raised by her grandmother while her mother moved away to find work and support their family. Terrified of what might happen to Tanzila, her grandmother eventually bowed under the weight of pressure and agreed to marry off Tanzila to an older man.
“My grandmother went through a lot,” Tanzila says. “I was a young girl. What if they did something bad to me? What if I faced trouble on my way to school? My grandmother is an older person — thoughts like these coming to her mind is natural. She was really scared.”
At first, Tanzila tried to fight against her grandmother’s decision to marry her off. But she says that once she started to think about how getting married might put an end to the harassment, she agreed that it seemed like the best way for her to stay protected.
Bangladesh has some of the highest rates of child marriage in the world: 59% of girls are married before their 18th birthday, and 22% are married before they turn 15. The pandemic shutdowns have created an even greater surge. And in recent years, sexual harassment and assault in Bangladesh has increased, contributing to more early marriages.
Calling harassment and assault against girls “eve teasing” also plays a role in these surges of gender-based violence. The euphemism is incredibly misleading in what it’s really describing and minimizes the very serious damage girls can experience as a result. When you imagine someone “teasing” another person, you might think of childlike misbehavior. But the reality here is that life-altering violence is falling under this deceptive label. And assigning “eve” to the term is implying that the blame is on the girl or woman who may be “teasing” or “tempting” men. When we normalize illusive phrases like “eve teasing,” we normalize violence against girls and women.
While many families hope that marriage will protect their daughters, the violence doesn’t always stop at the altar. During Tanzila’s marriage, she was regularly beaten by her husband and abused by her in-laws.
When Tanzila’s mother eventually returned back to their village, the news of Tanzila’s marriage came as a painful shock. “My mother had no idea about my marriage — it was kept a secret from her,” Tanzila says. “When I started facing difficulties at my in-law’s home, my mother told me that I didn’t need to go back there anymore.”
Tanzila was able to leave her marriage, but she still felt the anguish of the education she missed out on. She decided she wasn’t going to give up, regardless of everything she’d gone through. So, she went back to school, and although her grandmother told her that the “eve teasing” was a result of getting an education, she persisted. She eventually passed her secondary and higher secondary school certificates, and now at age 19, she hopes to go to college.
A key area of support for Tanzila has been a Plan International girls’ club that she joined after getting her school certificates, where she meets with other young people in the Barunga District of Bangladesh to discuss topics like child marriage and sexual and reproductive health. It was at one of the club meetings when she learned about a Plan accelerated learning school nearby that was hiring for a teaching role.
“I applied for the job and after the interview, I was selected,” she says. “Even after being selected, I didn’t think I would be able to take the job. I thought about what I had been through and felt worried that something bad would happen again. But then, I decided that it would help me to spend my time with children.”
Plan is working in the Barunga District to reach 26,000 children and young people, helping girls stay in school and prevent their risk of child marriage.
“I have been highly affected by child marriage, so whenever a student reaches out for help, I step forward and provide them with support,” she says.
Things have changed for the better in Tanzila’s life. But she says gender-based violence still affects her every day. “Even now, if I have to go anywhere, my family sends someone to go with me,” she says.
We can’t make progress without changing the language we use. When we change the dialogue, we can change the actions that come from it. And when more girls and young women like Tanzila are uplifted, that positive change can become generational.