“Oh my god! You have grown up so much! So why are you still unmarried? Why are your parents sitting idle, are they not concerned?”
These are words I heard every day even before completing middle school. In Bangladesh, when a girl enters puberty and starts to look feminine, all her well-wishers start worrying about her looks attracting the wrong attention and take steps to ensure she marries quickly. While my mom took care to guide her two young daughters after the untimely demise of my father, she was bombarded by calls and visits from well-meaning acquaintances who brought scores of proposals from prospective grooms.
I lived in Chittagong, the country’s second largest city, and we resided within the university campus, considered the most educated, progressive neighbourhood. So you can imagine how difficult the situation is for teenage girls, most of whom live in rural areas. It’s no wonder my country ranks second to last in a UN report on the number of child marriages. And what is our government doing about it? At last year’s Girl Summit in London, our Prime Minister promised to take steps to end this social malaise.
But that’s not the case. In an update to the existing Child Marriage Restraint Act, the government proposed lowering the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 16 years. The issue of child marriage was becoming a difficult problem to manage, hence this ‘necessary’ step. While most countries uphold 18 years as the standard as reflected in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child—and more nations are moving toward it—my country seeks to align itself with policies found in the likes of Somalia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. But how is this supposed to help? Their solution reminds me of an old quotation: “Politicians use statistics in the same way that a drunk uses lamp posts—for support rather than illumination.” If the age of marriage were to be lowered, many underage marriages would be classified as legal, thereby reducing the number of ‘counted’ child marriages and improving the rank of our country. While nothing is done to remedy the actual situation, this legal ‘fix’ would make the problem look much less severe, so the nation could sleep peacefully. Fortunately though, not everybody is sleeping. Human Rights Watch wrote an informative article urging the government to reconsider its decision and instead tighten law enforcement for underage marriages, and update provisions such as a very nominal fine for perpetrators. Several global leaders joined the call for scrapping this proposal. Facing strong opposition, the government tabled the proposal ‘for further consideration,’ indicating that the legal marriage age might not be dropping anytime soon.
But this reversal only takes us back to the status quo, whereas we need concrete actions to improve the pervasive problem of child marriages. In my understanding, the situation reflects the basic mentality of our society, where women are considered to be their family’s burden, to be gotten rid of as soon as possible, so that they can move to a new family to do the housework and produce children. No need is seen for much education, only enough to satisfy the prospective groom’s requirement. Higher education and subsequent employment for women is considered unnecessary; even undesirable. As a recent article argued, such a worldview increases the incentive of child marriage in both the bride’s and groom’s families. Younger women are considered more attractive and fertile, and are more likely to be ‘honorable’ in the sense of not having prior had romantic affairs, so they are preferred by the groom’s family. Consequently, the bride’s father pays less dowry so it’s easier for them to find an interested groom for a reasonable price. The whole culture remains horribly biased towards this primitive practice. So a fundamental change is necessary, whereby we educate and empower young women so that they can recognize their self-worth, not as a commodity in the marriage market whose value depreciates with age. Having faced a similar situation myself, I started a social welfare organization, the CLAP Foundation, as I feel we have a shared responsibility to work on this; leaving the work entirely on to the government is neither the quickest nor the confirmed way to reach a solution, as their recent policy proposal shows.