The Persistent Problem of Child Marriage in Bangladesh

Mowmita Basak Mow
Posted March 8, 2015 from Bangladesh

“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.

Comments 7

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Kristina M
Mar 08, 2015
Mar 08, 2015

Hello Mowmita,

Thank you for sharing how this problem continues in your country.  It is frustrating to read how the politican's answer to the problem is to redefine the laws so more marriages are legal instead of doing the hard work and enforcing the current laws.  While I hope the world's leaders continue to apply pressure to the government, I also wish the CLAP foundation success in empowering young women and planting the seeds to hopefully making this practice less accepted in society.

LeanaM
Mar 09, 2015
Mar 09, 2015

Mowmita,

Your post was very intersting and powerful, and sometimes I wonder where and how change can be made: politicians or general culture?  Or is it a chicken and the egg question?  Regardless, I hope that countries will start moving in the right direction, instead of just using different strategies to make statistics seem better.

Are you familiar with Girls not Brides?  We worked with them on a previous campaign at World Pulse, and they are very strongly advocating around this issue.  Perhaps you might want to get int ouch to see if there is room for collaboration between your organizations.

Good luck in your great work!

Chelsea Maricle
Mar 09, 2015
Mar 09, 2015

Dear Mowmita,

Thank you for sharing your strong voice with us! Your words are powerful and cut straight through to the issue, enlightening us all of what's happening in your country. I just visited your website for the CLAP Foundation and am so impressed and inspired by your mission.

I encourage you to check out the World Pulse Leadership Group, if you have not already done so. As a leader yourself, you will find many others leading change around the world, perhaps some in your country as well, and all of whom you can connect and collaborate with!

Best wishes to you and keep us posted on your work,

Chelsea

Yvette Warren
Mar 11, 2015
Mar 11, 2015

Great work, Mowmita. I love your kind of acitivism. I would like to know more about CLAP.

I am certain that this October, in Salt Lake City Utah, USA, we will make known to the world that women's voices matter in all things. I am acting as an ambassador to the 2015 Parliament of the World's Religions http://ParliamentOfReligions.org. For the first time, this year, the parliament is having a "women's initiative."

In addition to asking my WP sisters and brothers to consider attending the parliament, I am working with World Pulse Sister Zeph https://www.worldpulse.com/en/community/users/sister-zeph, SHEROES United http://www.sheroesunited.org/, and One Billion Rising http://www.onebillionrising.org/events/women-of-the-world-we-rise/ to create a parade of people in support of social justice for women. Sister Urmila https://www.worldpulse.com/en/community/users/urmila-chanam/posts/34846 is bringing her menstrual hygiene campaign to the parade event.

I would love to have a group from CLAP join us in support of your efforts.

Soumya Vilekar
Mar 12, 2015
Mar 12, 2015

Dear Mowmita,

The problem persists unless the system and the mentality of people changes. Here the age old traditions are very hard to be broken ,even though they pose a danger to the life of girls and imprint a mark on their lives. Early marraige in those days meant , no expenses hereby for maintenance and education, thereby considering the gril child a burden.

It is commendable to see you work in the field and motivate others to improve their life . The article portrays  flaws of the existing society and the sensitivity of the issue.

Best wishes for your work,

Soumya

Shaheen S Dhanji
Mar 21, 2015
Mar 21, 2015

This is certainly a meaningful post - that resounds in the heinous acts of child-marriage - aka 'Karo-kari' in some parts of South Asia. We must raise voices to bring forth the issues and to commence dialogue on how to pursue the abolition of such violations on childrens rights (young girls rights in this predicament). I am interested to know further about CLAP - shall visit your website. Thank you for sharing this post - indeed, meaninful work you have pursued, thus, I wish you success in all your endeavours, dear Mowmite. Bhalo bondhu !

Mizanur Rahman Kiron
Mar 28, 2015
Mar 28, 2015

Dear Mowmita,

We will deffinatly with you to change the bad practice here in Bangladesh!