Among the images that stayed with me long after I left Patiya Upazila were the haunted eyes of the women who met us to relate their stories of violence and abuse.
All of their experiences were difficult to hear. It was hard to imagine how they could bear such a situation. The problems seemed so intractable. They were beaten, some brutally. But, if they divorced they would lose their status, whatever economic security they had, and their ability to provide and care for their children. All of them had been child brides. They were receiving legal advice from the Protecting Human Rights (PHR) Project, a USAID/Bangladesh-funded initiative implemented by Plan International and its local partners.
Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world. Despite the fact that the country's minimum legal age of marriage for women is 18 (and 21 for men), 64 percent of women currently ages 20–24 were married before the age of 18, according to a United Nations Population Fund and Government of Bangladesh 2011 survey. The 2007 Demographic Health Survey for the country indicated that the median age for women (20-24) married for the first time was just 16.
And, Bangladesh has one of the highest levels of domestic violence in the world. The same 2011 survey found that 87 percent of women in the country were abused at home; 50 percent were seriously injured.
Child marriage and domestic violence are linked. Both are rooted in traditional gender norms that do not value the role of women, seeing them more as drains than productive contributors. Child marriage is driven in part by the belief that a younger age will reduce the burden of dowry (the transfer of property from the bride’s family to the bridegroom or his family at her marriage). But, dowry practices themselves are strongly linked to violence against women.
So what is to be done? It is not about laws – or at least not just about laws. Child marriage has been illegal in Bangladesh since 1929; the Child Marriage Restraint Act states that child marriage is punishable. Additionally, the 2010 Domestic Violence Act makes such violence a criminal offense. But, the penalties are weak and enforcement at times lax.
Breaking through the complex and tangled web of economic, cultural, legal, and social factors that results in unconscionable high levels of gender-based violence and tramples the rights of children, particularly girls, is complex – but not impossible. The PHR project has been a remarkable effort, now in its fifth year, to address the multiple and complex causes of domestic violence. The project takes a "grassroots to grasstops" approach. At the national and local levels Plan and its partners, like the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association (BNWLA), are working with courts, professional associations, police, and parliamentarians to provide legal services and to strengthen legislation and enforcement targeting a broad range of actors, from judges and police to lawyers and teachers.
But, among the most effective interventions of the project are 102 Social Protection Groups (SPGs), a social accountability mechanism. The SPG mandate is to prevent gender-based violence in all its forms at the source – in the community. It brings together government, private sector, and civil society: political leaders (the President of the Union Parishad, and various other UP functionaries— elected officials akin to the mayor and the city council), social workers, the marriage registrars, the village doctors, local elites, and student representatives under the age of 18. It seeks to create awareness about the problem. It also helps generate local solutions to address it. Plan and its community-based partners help establish, train, and build the capacity of these groups. Courses cover the causes of GBV and prevention tools and mechanisms. Plan and PHR also support the SPG as it prepares its quarterly plans, from mass awareness events to school activities.
So the community, all parts of the community, comes together and agrees to own both the problem and the solutions. The UP leadership in Patiya Upazila is making budget allocations to continue to support SPG activities beyond the life of the project, including a special fund to help domestic violence survivors. It is setting aside funds to provide financing for a variety of awareness-raising events. While SPGs don't work equally well everywhere, they are functioning everywhere they have been set up, working to raise their game (a competition for best SPG is helping to motivate by appealing to civic pride), and generally moving towards local funding. Plan will be undertaking more in-depth studies of the model's impact and will evaluate the elements linked to SPG performance. The objective is to better understand how to improve their performance, enhance local ownership of the initiative, and scale up these social accountability mechanisms elsewhere.
Child marriage robs girls of their futures, and by doing so saps the country's energy and potential. An important answer to challenges so deeply rooted in traditional gender roles are solutions like the SPGs, which are locally grown, embraced, and funded. The Patiya UP aims to be child-marriage-free by December 2015.