I. How Girls Become Brides:
Contributing Factors to Child Marriage
“River erosion took our house, so we came here,” Beauty A. said. “We didn’t know anyone so we were vulnerable so my husband was able to threaten us. He told my father, ‘I will marry your daughter or I will burn your house down.’ My father had refused to give me to him because he already had a wife, but then he threatened us.”
Beauty’s father eventually agreed to the marriage and Beauty married. She is not sure what her age was when she married, but she believes she is about 40 now, and her oldest child, a son, is 25. She and her husband had three children before he abandoned the family and returned to his first wife. Beauty struggled to feed her children on her own, in part because of flooding. “When it rains everything gets destroyed—a lot of agriculture gets destroyed. If the crops are destroyed, there is no work for us.” For the last two years, she said, the situation has been much worse because a new embankment built two years ago by the government blocks the water from receding and has increased the flooding and resulting crop destruction.
Beauty took her two daughters out of school after class five and class three because even though the school was free, she could not afford stationery, pens, and uniforms. She arranged marriages for both daughters when they reached age 15. “I know the right age to get married is 18,” she said in relation to her younger daughter who had married three months earlier. “But I don’t have enough money to feed her.”
Bangladesh has the fourth-highest rate of child marriage in the world, after Niger, the Central African Republic, and Chad, according to the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF. About 74 percent of Bangladeshi women currently aged 20 to 49 were married or in a union before age 18, despite a minimum legal marriage age for women of 18. In the period 2005 to 2013, according to UNICEF, 65 percent of girls in Bangladesh married before age 18, and 29 percent married before age 15.
UNICEF data indicates that the rate of marriage among girls under the age of 15 in Bangladesh is the highest in the world. In absolute numbers, Bangladesh is the country in the world with the second-highest total number of women aged 20 to 24 years old who were married or in a union before age 15, after India. Two percent of girls in Bangladesh are married before age eleven.Boys are also the victims of child marriage in Bangladesh, though it is estimated that the rate of child marriage is 11 times higher for girls than boys.
While the rate of child marriage in Bangladesh is high across all parts of the country and all demographic groups, research shows that some girls are at higher risk than others. A heightened incidence of child marriage is associated with living in rural areas, receiving less education, and poverty. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) found in 2007 that 70 percent of girls living in rural areas in Bangladesh are married before age 18, compared to 53 percent of girls in urban areas. 80 percent of women with no education and 80 percent of women with only primary education married before 18, compared with 57 percent of women who studied at least to secondary school. Girls from the poorest 20 percent of families are twice as likely to marry before 18 as girls whose families are among the richest 20 percent. Recent research has suggested that there is also an increased risk of child marriage in Bangladesh in areas affected by natural disasters associated with climate change.
In other ways, Bangladesh has been cited as a development success story, including in the area of women’s rights. The UN cited Bangladesh’s “impressive” poverty reduction from 56.7 percent in 1991-1992 to 31.5 percent in 2010. Bangladesh has achieved gender parity in primary and secondary school enrollment, according to UN figures. Maternal mortality reportedly declined by 40 percent between 2001 and 2010.
Bangladesh’s development achievements have occasioned particular comment by experts because they have occurred in spite of weak governance and high corruption, a phenomena often referred to as the “Bangladesh paradox.” As the Economist wrote in 2009, “Of course, no one ever believed in such a paradox. It was a polite way of telling politicians that the country could do even better if they kept their hands out of the till.”
The United Nations University attributes Bangladesh’s successes in significant part to the economic growth the country has enjoyed due to two key factors: growth of the garment industry and remittances sent by the growing numbers of Bangladeshis who have migrated overseas in search of work. It also noted with approval the Bangladesh government’s willingness to permit NGOs to deliver crucial services, an approach that has led to flourishing Bangladeshi NGOs in some sectors becoming models for other countries.
The United Nations and others have warned, however, that in an environment where Bangladesh’s governance has become not stronger, but instead increasingly compromised, Bangladesh is likely to struggle to maintain its progress on these development indicators. Rising economic inequality in the country, as well as the increasing threats posed to Bangladesh by climate change, are of particular concern.
Bangladesh’s success in achieving some development goals begs the question of why the country’s rate of child marriage remains among the worst in the world. This report aims to help answer that question and suggest ways that the Bangladesh government can apply effective strategies to achieving comparable success in reducing child marriage.
I don’t have enough money to feed my daughters – that’s how I decide when I should marry them.
– Fatima A., mother of five.
“The main problem [causing child marriage] is poverty,” a local government official told Human Rights Watch. “People don’t have enough to eat every day. They need more financial help from the government.” She cited an example of a marriage she had helped to prevent where the family was given government assistance of 300 taka [US$4] per month as a successful effort to prevent the marriage.
Poverty was the reason most commonly cited by girls and family members as driving decisions to marry young, and often their poverty was so extreme that the family simply did not have enough to eat and they arranged marriages for their daughters specifically because of the lack of food. Almost none of the extremely poor families interviewed for this report had received assistance from government aid programs.
Families interviewed by Human Rights Watch who were unable to make ends meet often saw girls as a burden. This view is linked to discriminatory gender roles in Bangladesh, as daughters are expected to marry and go to live with their husband’s family, while sons typically remain living with and helping to support their parents. Gender discrimination means that when parents cannot afford to feed or educate all of their children, it is usually girls’ futures that are sacrificed first.
“We were very poor— sometimes we would eat every two or three days,” Lucky C., married at 15, said. “Even though they really wanted all three of their daughters to study it wasn’t possible, so they got me married.” Lucky is the youngest of the three girls. Her older sisters married at ages 11 and 12. “The economic situation of my in-laws is a little better– at least I can eat now,” she said.
“My parents couldn’t feed me so they decided to get me married, so I had no choice,” Shahana C., who married at age 14, said. Shahana married a year after her father died of cancer. Her mother struggled to support her three daughters by doing road work. “Married life is very good. My family is not having to suffer because of having to feed us.”
Human Rights Watch research found that parents sometimes enlist relatives to help care for some of their children, but these arrangements also create vulnerability to child marriage and other problems, including denial of education.
Ruhana M. was 10 when she was sent to live in Dhaka with her stepsister who works at a garment factory. “Because there are four brothers and three sisters in my family including me and we are very close in age, our parents couldn’t feed us. … She [Ruhana’s stepsister] took me and said, ‘I will feed her and send her to school,’” Ruhana said. The stepsister did not send Ruhana to school. “My [step] sister worked and I stayed home and worked in the home,” Ruhana said. “Whether it’s a sister or anyone else, would anyone take care of someone for free? I cooked and cleaned and fixed clothes.” Two years later, just days after Ruhana began menstruating at age 12, her stepsister helped arrange for her to be married. Ruhana said that her parents agreed to the marriage reluctantly. “At first my parents didn’t agree, but then they thought they couldn’t feed me, so they agreed.”
A parent’s ill health or death was sometimes a factor in moving forward plans for a daughter’s marriage.
“My father was very old and he said, ‘If I die who is going to get my daughter married?’ That’s why I got married early,” said Shahnaz H. She does not know her age or when she got married, but at the time of the interview, she looked about 16, had a daughter, and was pregnant with a second child.
Many of the people interviewed for this report were landless, often working as sharecroppers, cultivating other people’s land and bearing the risk of flooding and resulting crop destruction, while often having to pay rent for land on which to build the most basic of homes.
Taslima A. was forced to leave school and go to Dhaka to work in a garment factory at age 14 or 15. She is the sole provider for her family; the family struggles to survive in rural Noakhali in part because Taslima’s father has disabilities. Taslima married at 15, and now at age 18 is struggling to get a divorce from her abusive husband. She earns 6,000 taka [$78] per month in the factory. “I don’t have access to the government, but you do,” she said to Human Rights Watch. “You should tell them that people like me, with a father with no legs, we are suffering. They could give us land. We need land, and money, and domestic animals. We paid money to get this land [where the family’s house is] from someone, but that person is now trying to evict us. We don’t have a lot of money— they are pressuring us that we have to either pay or leave.”
Natural Disasters: River Erosion, Cyclones, and Flooding
Whatever land my father had and the house he had went under the water in the river erosion and that’s why my parents decided to get me married.
– Sultana C., who married at age 14 and is now 16 years old and 7 months pregnant.
Natural disasters in Bangladesh and the lack of an adequate government safety net for families affected by them, compound the poverty that drives child marriage.
Bangladesh’s geo-physical location makes it prone to frequent and sometimes extreme natural disasters, including cyclones, floods, storm surges, river bank erosion, earthquakes, droughts, tornados, and salinity intrusion, which cause widespread loss of life and property damage. The country typically experiences at least one major disaster a year and loses over three percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) every year due to natural disasters, while holding the highest disaster mortality rate in the world.
Bangladesh’s status as one of the most densely populated countries in the world (1,100 people per square kilometer) with a large poor population (47 million people living in poverty and 26 million in extreme poverty, out of a population of 166 million) makes its people especially vulnerable when natural disasters occur. The most disaster-prone areas of Bangladesh are also the country’s poorest areas. The World Risk Index, which “shows the respective risk of becoming a victim of disaster pertaining to extreme natural events,” in 2013 ranked Bangladesh as the fifth-highest country in the world in terms of risk.
Bangladesh’s troubles with natural disasters are now further compounded by climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) describes Bangladesh as one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, “in terms of its exposure to extreme events and lack of capacity to cope and adapt.” The IPCC warns, “South Asia’s climate is changing and the impacts are already being felt.” According to a World Bank study from 2013, Bangladesh is considered an “impact hotspot” with extreme river floods, more intense tropical cyclones, rising sea levels, extraordinarily high temperatures, and declining crop yields. Experts also warn that the high risk of inundation resulting from increased river flooding and tropical cyclone surges will mostly affect areas with high poverty rates.
A 2014 study found that the “impetus for child marriages and dowry […] are exacerbated by the climate challenges being experienced by families in rural Bangladesh.”
For many families in Bangladesh, flooding and the resulting destruction of crops has a devastating impact on food security, and is a great struggle to recover from every time. But it is an expected annual event and therefore a foreseeable risk. In addition, many of the country’s poorer residents have no choice but to live in areas vulnerable to cyclones, or in the shadow of creeping river erosion that advances steadily over the course of months or years, eventually and inevitably rendering those in its path homeless and landless.
People living in disaster-affected areas in Bangladesh often live in extreme poverty before disaster strikes. Families interviewed for this report indicated that a cyclone, another flood, an especially high or long flood, or the arrival of river erosion at their doorstep can push a family from a situation where they are barely managing to get from one day to the next to one where child marriage becomes part of a desperate survival strategy. As one NGO activist working in disaster-affected parts of Noakhali district told Human Rights Watch, “The link between drought or flooding and child marriage may not be direct, but they are indirectly related. The economic situation of the family affects the decision to marry.”
A number of families interviewed for this report drew more direct links between disasters and their daughters’ marriages. This was particularly common among families who had lost their homes and land as a result of river erosion.
“This is a river erosion area— because of that my father is very poor, so he got me married,” said Sultana C., who married at age 14, a few months after her family lost their home. “Whatever land my father had and the house he had went under the water in the river erosion and that’s why my parents decided to get me married.” Sultana is now 16 and 7 months pregnant. She lives with her in-laws in a house they built on leased land after they too lost their home and land to river erosion. “I used to enjoy student life,” Sultana said. “Without studies, life is very difficult.”
The fear of river erosion also contributed to decisions by families to marry their girls, our research found. “Because of river erosion people think girls are a burden for their family, so if someone wants to marry a girl they don’t wait,” an NGO worker explained. “Families think that if their house goes they’ll have to go to another place and it will take time to get established and find a husband and meanwhile the girl is getting older and dowry is going up. Also when they have a house, before it is taken [by the river], the in-laws families will think the family owns a house, which gives them more importance. After [the house is swept away] they might rent and that makes them less important and means less status for the girl [and less bargaining power in arranging a marriage].”
“This is a place affected by river erosion,” Azima B.’s parents told her, explaining why she had to marry at age 13. “If the river takes our house it will be hard for you to get married so it’s better if you get married now.” A year after Azima’s marriage, her parents’ house has not yet been destroyed, but the river is coming closer and the family is expecting to lose their house and land within the next few years. “I protested a lot,” Azima said, against her parents’ decision for her to get married. “I had to get married because if the river takes our house I have to think about what will happen to my sisters. I am the oldest and only after I get married can they think about getting married. If the river takes the house it will be hard for them to get married.” Azima’s sisters are ages 12, 10, and 8 years old; her parents are now considering a marriage for the 12-year-old.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed a number of girls and families where child marriages followed the destruction caused by Cyclone Aila. Cyclone Aila struck an area spanning both sides of the border between Bangladesh and India in May 2009, killing more than 200 people and making more than 500,000 people homeless.
Rahela S. married at age 13, about a year after both of her parents were killed by Cyclone Aila. “At that time they had left me at my grandmother’s house. It [their house] was swept away. No one saw their dead bodies,” she said. Rahela went to live with her aunt and uncle but they had been injured when their house collapsed during the cyclone, and were struggling to afford education for their two children. “You know orphans don’t get education,” Rahela said. “My aunt and uncle asked me not to go to school— they said I should work in their house and look after their children.” About one year after Cyclone Aila, her aunt and uncle arranged a marriage for her. “I can’t really blame them,” Rahela said. “They don’t have enough money to provide for their own children.”
“Because of our financial problems after [Cyclone] Aila, I got my daughter married,” said Anika M., who arranged a marriage for her daughter Rahana when she was 14 years old. The family went hungry as they rebuilt their house which had been destroyed by the cyclone, and then struggled for a year to pay off the debt they had incurred for the rebuilding. They estimate that 300 to 400 homes in their area were swept away.
While flooding, unlike river erosion, does not typically leave families homeless and landless, it represents a constant battle for survival for many poor families. Sharecroppers often lose their livelihoods and food as floods sweep away crops, animals, and sometimes the contents of their homes with great regularity. Landless families have no option but to settle in areas that are barely habitable, and they often have no hope of relocating. Regular flooding keeps them extremely poor and drives decisions about schooling and marriages for their children.
“Our crops were destroyed in seven of the last ten years,” said Farhana B., who took extra work herding cows to raise a dowry for her 14-year-old daughter’s marriage.
“The flooding wouldn’t come in our house but it would be outside and it would be impossible to go out and impossible for my father to go to work,” said Nafisa K., whose father sells cooking utensils. “The water would stay for about three months. Sometimes my father could take a boat to work but sometimes he had to just stay home.” Nafisa’s parents took her out of school after class five because they could not afford the expense, and a year later, at about age 14, they had her married.
Many families experienced multiple types of natural disasters, for example, losing their homes to river erosion and then having no choice but to resettle in an area stricken by regular flooding. For these families, each new set of natural disasters compounds the poverty caused by the last.
“Our house keeps breaking [because of the river]. We keep bringing mud to stop it falling,” said Shapna A., who married at age 12. “The water would come in and not go out and then my father couldn’t go to work. He works with land so he can’t work when the land is underwater.” Shapna’s father is a day laborer. The family’s house was also damaged during Cyclone Aila. “I was in class six and while I was studying I was married off,” Shapna said. “My mother thought I have two younger siblings and they can’t spend all their money on me.” Shapna’s husband was 24 or 25 at the time of the marriage.
Lack of Access to Education
I got married because I quit school.
–Mariam A., who married at the age of 15. She left school after class five because going on to class six would have involved higher costs and a longer walk of 3.5 kilometers each way.
There is a strong connection between access to education and child marriage in Bangladesh. Many of the girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch explained that they were married when their families could no longer afford to educate them. There were also girls who said that the decision that they should marry came first and that their leaving school was a result, not a cause, of that decision, but that was less common.
Access to education is a struggle for all poor children in Bangladesh, but gender discrimination means that girls face specific obstacles. For example, often their parents see them as a burden and, because they are expected to marry and go to live with their husband’s family, less worthy than their brothers of the investment education requires. This may result in families with limited means prioritizing education for their sons over education for their daughters, particularly in secondary education.
One of Bangladesh’s greatest development successes is the increase in enrollment of both boys and girls in primary education. For 2009-2013, UNICEF reported a male literacy rate of 78 percent and a female literacy rate of 82 percent in Bangladesh. UNICEF also reported that 77 percent of boys and 81 percent of girls were attending primary education.
By secondary school, however, attendance rates have fallen to 43 percent for boys and 47 percent for girls. As the World Bank notes, “With a dropout rate by grade five of about 50%, the challenge is not just getting girls in school—it is keeping them there.”
Attrition continues to be extremely high during secondary school; for every 100 children beginning class 6, only 35 will pass the Secondary School Certificate (SSC) examination at the end of class 10, and only 10 will pass the Higher Secondary Certificate examination. While the attendance rate in secondary school is higher for girls than boys, at more advanced levels of education, girls’ achievement begins to fall behind. By the time students register for the SSC exam at the end of class 10, girls are only 46 percent of those registered, and less than 44 percent of those who pass.
One factor which discourages school attendance by girls, and therefore puts them at higher risk for child marriage, is a lack of hygienic and private toilets, a gap that becomes more difficult for girls to manage as they reach the onset of menstruation. A 2014 study in Bangladesh found that 40 percent of girls reported missing school during menstruation for an average of 3 school days each menstrual cycle. In this study, 82 percent of girls said their school facilities were not appropriate for managing menstrual hygiene, 12 percent had access to female-only toilets with water and soap available, and only 3 percent said the toilet they used had a trash bin. Such gaps in attendance compromise girls’ eligibility for government stipends linked to attendance (discussed below), cause girls to fall behind in their studies, and undermine parental support for keeping girls in school.
The link between education and child marriage is borne out by research finding that women with primary, secondary, and higher education, compared to women with no formal education, were respectively 24 percent, 72 percent, and 94 percent less likely to marry at a young age. This study found that, “Women's education appeared as the most significant single determinant of child marriage as well as decline in child marriage.”
The government has made major efforts to increase access to education for all children, and especially for girls. These initiatives, which include making five years of primary education free, are discussed in detail later in this report. The stories of the girls below, however, echo the observations of researchers and aid organizations: education still remains out of reach for poor families, and for many girls the consequence of lack of access to education is child marriage.
“My parents thought they would marry the girls off so at least they could afford to send the son to school,” said Bibi M., who left school and was married at age 14 to a 23 or 24-year-old man.
Ruhana M. married at 12 and now has a six-year-old daughter. She does day labor as a road worker to pay for her daughter to go to school. “I will not be the way my parents were. I have one child and I only want one child so I can provide for her and I will work hard and take care of her. I work to make sure she goes to school. It’s not good to get anyone married very young— I won’t make the same mistake with my daughter,” Ruhana said.
Even for children who are in grades or schools where there are no tuition fees, there are associated costs, typically including exam fees, pens, and stationery, and sometimes also uniforms, books and study guides, and private tuition. For many families interviewed by Human Rights Watch, even the smallest associated costs put education out of reach of their children.
“There are a lot of parents who would send their children to school if it weren’t for these costs,” an NGO worker in Laxmipur said. “There are a lot of people who can’t even afford a 10 taka [$0.13] exam fee.”
Razia B. and her husband have so far managed to keep their three sons in school, and their youngest daughter is still in primary school, but their older daughters left school early. Razia is uncertain of her daughters’ ages, but said that their marriages took place about two years after they began menstruating. “We couldn’t pay her exam fees,” Razia said of her middle daughter.
“I can’t pay so she will have to quit,” Khadija A. said, explaining why she is about to take her oldest child, a 13-year-old daughter, out of school. Khadija is 35 years old and has 4 children. Her family lives in two rooms and survives through her husband doing agricultural work and any other work they can find. “She studied until class five, but now she needs to go to high school. The high school charges 2,500 taka [$32] in registration fees. I would also have to pay for private tutoring and books.”
Musamat C., age 20, was married at about 13 because her parents could not afford to send her to school. She has not yet sent her six-year-old daughter to school, but she hopes to be able to send her soon. She explained that families must pay 300-500 taka [$3.89-6.49] for a uniform plus exam fees of 150 taka [$1.95] three times a year—and these costs make it difficult for families as poor as her own to send children to school.
Some families interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that they must make the difficult decision about whether to pay for education or food and sometimes children were too hungry to go to school.
Sanjida H.’s mother took her out of school after class four. “Should I be feeding her, or making her go to school?” her mother asked. “Before she went to school she got hungry but in the morning sometimes there was no food.”
In rural Noakhali, a community activist said that while families struggle to pay school fees and related costs, “[t]he biggest problem is that schools are not available. Often there is one school for four or five kilometres and some school teachers are not showing up or are not competent.”
Mariam A. said she is 15, but she looks younger. She spoke to Human Rights Watch 3 days after her marriage to a 21-year-old man. Her parents are agricultural workers and she is the eighth of nine children. Her sisters married at age 14 or 15. “I studied to class five,” she said. “But to go to school for class six was too far away and the route was not good – the school [where they teach class six] is 3.5 kilometers away. I got married because I quit school.” Mariam said there is no possibility of returning to school now, both because of distance and because she cannot pay for exam fees and other associated costs. Mariam’s mother-in-law, who insisted on being present during the interview, added, “I can’t fill my own stomach – how can I send her to school?”
In some areas, the only school within reasonable proximity was a non-government school, where fees are charged. “Even 20 years ago, there were no schools in this area. Now there are some schools, so this is the first generation getting some education,” a community leader in Noakhali told Human Rights Watch. “There are a lot of primary government schools now, but not secondary schools.” Non-government schools set their own fees. Some are also not accredited by the government, for example, madrasas which teach only religious subjects, not a general curriculum. In one area of Noakhali that Human Rights Watch visited, the closest government high school was 45 kilometers away.
Girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch indicated that girls who are still in school experience less pressure from the community to get married. Mariam A., who married at the age of 15, explained, “We’re poor and when our girls get to a certain age a lot of people say a lot of bad things and it makes us uncomfortable so our parents marry us. If we were studying they might not have been able to say anything. I really wished to do something with my life, but my parents are poor so I had to get married.”
“My parents say they will wait until a little later, until after I’m 15,” Sadia B. said about when she will get married. She is not certain of her exact age, but says she is under 15. She studied until class five, but then stopped because her family could not afford the 550 taka [$7] annual school fees plus the cost of books and copies. Since she left school, “A lot of people are talking about me getting married,” she said. “I don’t want to get married—it’s too soon. I’m not really sure if my parents will listen to me [and delay marriage]— they might, they might not. The biggest problem for girls is money. Families without money can’t pay for school.”
“There should be access to education,” Adnan M., a 16-year-old boy, told Human Rights Watch. “People can’t afford education. If education is accessible then naturally the age of marriage will go up.”
When my daughter got to a certain age people in society said, “You have to get her married.” You have to remember I am a very poor person, so I have to listen to what society says. I have to go out sometimes and they said, “Your daughter will do bad things with boys while you’re out.” I have to go out to work— I do agricultural work and I am out all day. If while I’m out something happens to my daughter I will be taken out of my house and beaten up and held responsible.
–Abida N., age 40, explaining why she arranged for her oldest daughter to marry at age 15.
Many girls and parents interviewed by Human Rights Watch cited social pressure as a key factor driving child marriage in communities where child marriage is the norm. While NGOs have reached some communities with awareness raising efforts about the risks of child marriage, such efforts by the government are noticeably absent. Attempts by some government officials and police to make communities aware that child marriage is illegal are undermined by community members’ experiences of local government officials frequently facilitating child marriage by providing forged birth certificates in exchange for bribes.
“Elders [male community leaders] in the area might say your daughter is getting old,” is Rekha H.’s explanation for why both her older and younger sisters were married at age 11, and Rekha herself married at age 12. “No one said anything, but [my parents] were afraid, so before anyone could they got us married.” Rekha’s brother married at age 13. Rekha and the other two older daughters never attended school, but their two younger sisters are currently in school. The three older daughters are trying to prevent their parents from arranging a marriage for a fourth sister who is now 11 years old. “We are trying to stop them. We are saying we have health problems and feel weak and can’t work properly. I think we’ll be able to prevent it,” Rekha said.
“A lot of people used to put their eyes on my daughters, so I had to get them married,” Asma C. said. Asma has seven children—four sons and three daughters. At the time of the interview her daughters were 18, 16, and 15 years old. They were all married, at the ages of 16, 14, and 15 respectively. Asma explained their early marriages in part based on her own experience. “I married when I was very young,” she said. “I still lost two milk teeth after I was married. Maybe I was nine years old. It was two years after I married before I became clever [began menstruating].”
“People here had been shaming me because I’m tall and I look older than I am,” Azima B. said, explaining her parents’ decision to have her marry at age 13. “I protested a lot to my parents but they said, ‘It is a shame for us to keep you in the house.’ I wanted to continue my education, but my mother said, ‘Your father has fixed your marriage and if you don’t listen to your father people will say what kind of girl is that who doesn’t listen to her father?’” Azima married a 17-year-old boy three days after his parents decided she was an acceptable bride.
Those interviewed for this report described strong social pressure to get girls married to prevent them from having a romantic or sexual relationship before marriage, and there is also great stigma attached to “love marriages.” Even just the possibility that a girl would be perceived as being involved in a romantic relationship was sometimes enough to prompt a rushed marriage, which can happen within a matter of days, according to interviewees. Child marriage is used by both communities and families to curb girls’ agency and deny them the chance to make their own decisions about dating and marriage. Girls who are too young to marry may still be mature enough to make their own decisions about dating and relationships and should be permitted to do so without facing forced marriage as a consequence. Urgent as it is to end child marriage, efforts to do so should be carefully crafted to respect girls’ autonomy in decisions about relationships.
“In our area people say all kinds of bad things,” said Nafisa K., who married at about age 14. “They would come and tell my parents I had spoken to some boy who in fact I had not spoken to, and my parents got really hurt and decided to get me married.”
“My mother wanted me to get married because she was afraid I would fall in love with someone,” said Hasina A., who is 15 or 16 and married 5 months ago. “She stopped my education because she wanted me to get married. She said I was getting old and people were saying a lot of things.”
Abida N., after marrying her older daughter at 15, told Human Rights Watch she would like to allow her younger daughter to wait until she is 20 to marry, “But if she is going to do something with some boy, to save myself I will have to get her married. We need to save our daughters. Not all girls are good. To save their lives and dignity we have to get them married. A 10-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy ran away and got married from this area recently. If we try to follow the government rule [the minimum marriage ages of 18 for women and 21 for men set by the Child Marriage Restraint Act (CMRA)] we will be in trouble. Boys and girls run away and then we’re in trouble.”
“We had to get her married to save our respect,” Dipanjali B. said, explaining why she arranged her daughter’s marriage at 17. “She was very pretty and people were threatening to kidnap her and every time she went to school she was harassed.” Dipanjali’s daughter told her parents that there was a boy with a motorcycle who said he wanted to take her to his family’s shop, and her parents became alarmed. “Sometimes girls are taken and sometimes they run away,” Dipanjali said. “Either way it is a hit on our dignity. My husband and my brothers got together and decided [on a marriage for her]. My daughter was not happy to marry— she wanted to study more and get a job but unfortunately we couldn’t [let her do that].”
“We were afraid someone would cause trouble for her,” Suresh M. said, explaining why he arranged for his daughter to marry at age 16. “A boy had proposed to her, but we managed to cover that incident up. If anyone got to know that a boy proposed it would have caused problems for her. He would disturb her— he got others to take the proposal to her.” Suresh regrets his decision now. “If I had had a little more patience, I could have managed the situation and that would have been better because now she’s having too many problems in her in-laws’ house.”
The importance attached to a girl’s reputation and the fragility of that reputation means that a girl’s future can easily be damaged simply by rumors.
“The boys disturb us,” said Parveen L., who married at age 15. “They throw little stones, they stand in the path. They threaten us and say, ‘We’ll do you some harm— we will tell everyone that there is a relationship between you and me.’ People in the village see these things and if they think there is a relationship then we will never be able to get married.” There is also a fear of boys or men “taking girls away,” a phrase which encompasses both abduction and elopement.
“If our daughter went off or someone took her away it would hurt our pride and our respect and we could never get it back,” Shahida A. said, explaining why she forced her daughter to marry at age 16. “At this age girls sometimes start liking boys and do something wrong, or boys take girls away. We are poor people and this would be very shameful for us, so we decided to get her married.”
Many of those interviewed for this report linked social pressure with poverty. “The poor people’s daughters always have to suffer,” said Fatima A., who married her daughter, Ayesha L., at age 15. “Rich people’s daughters can become old and no one says anything, but when our daughters become a little old everyone says things.”
Religious leaders play an influential role, which can be positive or negative. In some areas, local activists cited growing religious conservatism as a cause of increased child marriage. “Sometimes imams [Muslim religious leaders] are encouraging child marriage, asking why girls who are 18 or 20 are not married yet,” a civil society activist told Human Rights Watch.
Social pressures can be so intense that parents sometimes end up feeling that arranging an early marriage is an act of kindness and loving parenting.
“Twelve is a normal age for marriage here,” said Laki B., explaining why her father, a religious leader, arranged her marriage when she was 12 years old. Laki’s mother said, “Her father is very fond of her— that’s why he wanted to get her married young. He thought she was his only daughter so it would be very good to get her married early. He didn’t understand that this would happen.” Laki, at age 15, has moved back in with her parents after serious abuse by her husband and in-laws.
“My parents have no other children and they love me very much,” said Marjina A., who is not sure of her age but looks 14 or 15 and has been married for more than one and a half years. “Out of their caring they got me married because we didn’t have any money to send me to school, so they thought it was better to get me married.”
Some interviewees made it clear that while social pressure is a significant driver of child marriage, it can be resisted and it can be changed.
“When I got married I was so young I was not ready, but my parents forced me,” said Noor B., who married at age 11 and has 2 sons and 2 daughters. “So I decided if I had children I would not get them married young.” Noor’s husband does not work and is physically abusive to her, but she has started her own business and has a shop selling clothing where she has earned enough to pay for her children’s education with assistance from loans that are available specifically to pay for education fees. Her daughters are now 22 and 26 years old and neither are married—the older one just finished her bachelor of arts degree and the younger one is applying to universities. “I had to struggle a lot because a lot of people say, ‘You are feeding milk and mangoes to your daughters, but they are getting old.’ I say I am the one who will understand my daughters,” Noor said. “As soon as my daughters start working and earn money to stand on their own two feet I will choose their husbands.”
Omar N., a 60-year-old rickshaw driver, never attended school himself. He has three daughters and three sons and is determined that his children should go to school. His oldest daughter married at 19 but his younger daughters, ages 18 and 15, are unmarried and are still students. “Of course I have to listen to these things—people saying, ‘You have to get your daughter married, or she will do bad things,’” he said. “I listen and try to explain. In some places I use bad words to them [people who say these things] and sometimes I explain calmly. I say, ‘Look at female politicians—my daughter could be one of them one day but only if I educate them.’”
One mother suggested, however, that pressure could escalate into physical violence.
“When my daughter got to a certain age people in society said, ‘You have to get her married,’” Abida N., age 40, said. “You have to remember I am a very poor person, so I have to listen to what society says. I have to go out sometimes and they said, ‘Your daughter will do bad things with boys while you’re out.’ I have to go out to work— I do agricultural work and I am out all day. If while I’m out something happens to my daughter I will be taken out of my house and beaten up and held responsible.”
Harassment, Intimidation, and Coercion
He was afraid my parents would marry me to someone else— that’s why he did this to me.
– Reena F., explaining why a classmate raped her when she was 14 years old.
A significant minority of the women and girls Human Rights Watch interviewed reported that their parents had tried to resist marrying them as children but had later agreed to marriages as a result of harassment or threats, including threats of abduction or even assault. Families facing these threats felt that they had little or no ability to obtain help and protection from police or other local government officials, even when the behavior clearly constituted a crime.
“There is so much sexual harassment. Parents who are better off who get their daughters married [young] usually do so because of sexual harassment,” an NGO worker told Human Rights Watch. “Poorer parents do it for financial reasons.”
Reena F. was 14 when she was raped by a classmate who carried out the assault with the specific intention of forcing her to marry him. “He used to disturb me all the time and one time he forced himself on me,” she said. “He was afraid my parents would marry me to someone else— that’s why he did this to me.” Reena F. is now 21 years old and has a 7-year-old son, conceived as a result of the rape, and a 2-year-old daughter. “He called me and said, ‘I want to talk,’” Reena F. said, describing the circumstances of the rape. “I said, ‘No, my parents will be angry.’ I was very young. He promised to give me clothes. He took me to a jungle area and raped me. I screamed but no one heard me.”
After the attack, Reena F. did not know what to do. “I really didn’t understand anything at that time. I didn’t tell my parents because I was in fear. When I started having morning sickness, I told my grandmother and she told my parents.” Neither Reena F. nor her family reported the rape to the police. “We didn’t go out of fear,” she said. “If other people knew [about the rape] we were afraid of what would happen. My parents are very simple— they thought it would cause shame for our family.”Reena F. left school after the attack and after she had the baby her parents arranged a marriage to another man who knew about the rape and agreed to accept her son and have him live in their home. The rapist kept harassing Reena F. until soon after she was married. “He kept saying, ‘I gave you a baby so you need to come back to me.’ But after my husband threatened him he stopped.”
Several families interviewed by Human Rights Watch described marrying a daughter out of fear, in the face of threats that she would be abducted by a thwarted suitor. Many interviewees lived in extremely marginal communities—isolated geographically from law enforcement and local government and sometimes cut off from roads and accessible only by foot or by boat. These are often areas where the population is in flux, undermining social cohesion that might provide protection in the absence of police. In these environments, everyone is vulnerable, and unmarried girls who are nearing or have reached puberty are particular targets of harassment and seen by their parents as being at great risk.
“He threatened my mother and that’s why she agreed to the marriage. I do whatever my mother says,” Musamat C. said. Musamat is not sure how old she was when she married, but she is 20 years old now, and her children are 6 years old and 3 years old, so it seems likely that she married at about the age of 13. “He spoke to my mother, but my mother was not interested because his parents didn’t want to accept me because they were well off and I was very poor.” After Musamat’s future husband threatened Musamat’s mother, the marriage went ahead. 
Farida A., a widow with 3 children, arranged a marriage for her oldest daughter, Sanjida H., when the girl was 17 after threats of kidnapping from her own relatives. Her brother-in-law wanted Sanjida to marry his son. Farida resisted at first, because the boy’s mother was dead and his father had recently lost his home to river erosion. “But my other brother-in-laws started saying, ‘If you don’t marry her to the boy we will kidnap her,’” she explained. “I live alone here and I am very vulnerable so I decided to get her married to him. I was very intimidated because I couldn’t really protect her.” Sanjida’s husband now lives in Farida’s house along with Sanjida and Farida’s two younger children. “He doesn’t really feed her,” Farida says. “He works when he wants to but sometimes he doesn’t want to work.”
Parents’ fears of leaving girls unprotected in the home also prompted some marriages, Human Rights Watch found. “If my mother wasn’t there and we were in the house alone, anyone could do anything to us,” Rumi C. said, explaining why her father had her married at 15. Rumi’s mother was ill with cancer and expected to die, and did in fact die after Rumi married. Rumi’s father is a day laborer and was away from the house all day; he feared for the safety of Rumi and her two younger sisters if their mother died and could no longer protect them in the home. “Before anything bad happened, he decided to get me married,” Rumi said.
Girls looking to their families for help in combating harassment sometimes found that their family’s solution was child marriage.
“Boys said that they love me. I was very pretty—they wanted to marry me,” Rabiya A. said, describing the events that led to her marriage at age 13. “I told my mother because I wanted her to tell the boys’ parents that they should stop, because it was making it hard for me to go to school or to go anywhere. After I told my mother she went and talked to their parents and they scolded their sons and the sons stopped and I was able to move about in peace. But my mother was afraid for their respect. Six days after I told my mother boys were disturbing me, I got married.”
Several girls described how they had quit school because of harassment and that child marriage quickly followed the decision to leave school.
Aliya B. left her studies at a madrasa and agreed to a marriage because of harassment. “Boys used to say they wanted to go out with me all the time. I felt very scared and didn’t feel secure. I said yes [to getting married] because of all these boys,” she said. She has not yet gone to live with her in-laws. She says she is glad about getting married because it has ended the harassment. “Now the boys have stopped harassing me so I feel happy.”
Rohima M., age 13, quit school two months ago, one month before she was due to take her exams for class five. She explained that her parents did not want her to quit school, but she quit “because one particular boy was coming to say he wanted to marry me,” and she was afraid of him. She said that another reason was that she is taller than other girls in her class, and looks older. “People in the neighborhood laugh at me for [still] going to school at this age,” she said.
The fear of harassment or dishonor to the family resulting from pre-marital relationships is so pervasive that many girls and parents we interviewed described child marriages resulting not from harassment itself, but merely the fear of harassment.
“My mother is old-fashioned,” said Nabila C., who left school at class 6 when she was 12 years old and married at age 14. “She thought boys would disturb me so she stopped my education. No one disturbed me—she was just afraid. When I became mature at age 12 my mother started wanting to marry me so when she found this boy she got me married.”
Now she is pretty and young and we can give her away for free. If you bring the police we will have more problems when she gets older.
– Ruhana M.’s older brother, arguing for why Ruhana should marry at age 12. The marriage went forward.
The practice of a bride’s family paying a “dowry” to the groom’s family, in the form of cash, jewellery, or goods, creates incentives for poor families to marry off their daughters earlier. It also constitutes a form of gender discrimination that further impoverishes poor families who have daughters, and disputes about dowry payments can lead to domestic violence against girls and women.
A 1980 law banned the practice of the payment of dowry to the groom’s family by the family of the bride. In spite of this, the payment of dowry remains widespread in Bangladesh, including among extremely poor people, where a bride’s parents may give some of their own belongings, for example, the mother’s jewellery, in lieu of cash. “Seventy to eighty percent of Muslim families give dowry,” an NGO worker in Laxmipur said, “and in Hindu families they all give dowry. Rich families give ‘gifts’ and don’t use the term dowry.”
Farhana B. paid a dowry of 45,000 taka [$584] when her daughter married at age 14. “An NGO gave us some money, and I borrowed some cows and looked after them for someone else and made some money from that,” Farhana said, explaining how she raised the money. Her husband is a rickshaw driver in Dhaka who earns about 200 taka [$2.60] per day. “If I don’t give money then they don’t want to take my daughter. It’s really impossible to marry a daughter without a dowry even though it’s illegal,” she said.
Dowry, however, is typically lower or may not be necessary at all for child brides. “The reason girls from very poor families get married very early is that when they are young they are very beautiful and don’t have to pay any dowry, so their parents think this is the only way they can deal with this,” a community activist explained.
“If they get older, dowry becomes compulsory,” Asma C., a mother of 3 teen daughters who married at 14, 15, and 16, told Human Rights Watch.
“My uncle said, ‘Don’t get her married now—I will bring the police if you do,’” said Ruhana M., who married at age 12. “But my older brother said, ‘Don’t bring the police. Now she is pretty and young and we can give her away for free. If you bring the police we will have more problems when she gets older.’”
“People should not give dowry.” Shilpa A., who married at 15, told Human Rights Watch. “It’s a vicious cycle that makes people want to marry their children young because the dowry goes up if they wait. At these times there is very little value of women in the market—without a dowry a woman has no value. In this area very few people agree to get married without a dowry. It’s a very big problem— often they are asking for 50, 75, 100 thousand taka [$649, $974, $1299].”
Shilpa’s family was able to refuse to pay dowry for her marriage because her uncle and grandfather are both religious leaders. Her father-in-law, however, had to sell some of the family’s land to pay the 20,000 taka [$260] dowry necessary for his oldest daughter to get married. “My sister-in-law’s dowry went to pay for her husband’s sisters’ dowries— it gets passed on.”
“Child marriage happens mostly because of economic reasons, because people are so poor and feel if they get their daughter married younger they can pay less dowry,” an NGO worker in Sirajganj said. “But then they get more problems, because there is more divorce and more pressure on girls for more dowry [after they’ve married].”
“They needed to get me married early or they would have had to pay dowry,” Aaliya M. said, explaining why her parents had her married at age 17. “They don’t have any money and can’t pay dowry, so they fixed my marriage with my father’s sister’s son.”
Interviewees reported great pressure on girls to agree to marriages, even at a young age not only because of their own lack of agency, but also because of their feelings of responsibility regarding the impact a failure to get married on their part may have on the rest of the family.
Soraya A., who married when she was 15 and is now 18 years old, told Human Rights Watch, “I wasn’t happy at all when they asked me to get married because I was too young. But I had to agree because I had two sisters and it would cause problems for them. If I waited two years, then they would be old and have problems [finding a husband].”
So entrenched is the practice of dowry that several parents told Human Rights Watch that they had insisted on paying dowry for their daughter, believing that the girl would be valued more highly and treated better by her in-laws if she came with a dowry. “His family said, ‘We really like her— we don’t want any dowry,’” Alima A., who married at age 13, said describing her 25-year-old husband’s parents’ enthusiasm for the match. “My father insisted on a 40,000 taka [$519] dowry and jewellery because he said, ‘I only have two girls and I won’t marry them for nothing.’”
Dowry practices also create pressure for boys and men to marry well and enrich their families through the dowry their brides bring. Adnan M., a 16-year-old boy, told Human Rights Watch, “The rate of taking dowry is going up. Parents are very evil— they want to use their sons to make some money.”
Early Marriage has become one of the most discussed issues in Bangladesh after recent decisions on ‘girl’s marriage age’ taken by the government and the series of criticism mounted by the women and child rights activists. Before going to the debate I would like to put light on the history and legal issues of Early Marriage as well as causes and consequences of it.
Historically, early marriage has been a global and historical phenomenon for millennia. In ancient Israel, it was common for girls to be betrothed at or before puberty. From Niger and Saudi Arabia to Great Britain, India and Taiwan, child betrothals were used to end tribal conflicts and forge interfamily alliances. In fact, it was the religion that formally set a minimum age requirement for marriage. Abrahamic traditions required a girl to at least reach puberty before she could be married off. The Vedas prescribed waiting three additional years. The minimum marriageable age for a girl was agreed to be 14 years according to the 1983 Code of Cannon Law. However, norms regarding child marriage have changed over the yearsdue to many movements.
In Bangladesh, currently, the minimum legal age for marriage is 18 for women as stated in the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929. In November 2016, the Cabinet said it would pass the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2016 during Parliament’s winter session. The new Act is said to include a special provision allowing child marriage in “special cases”, such as if a girl becomes pregnant “accidentally” or “illegally”, or where a marriage would protect her ‘honour’. There are fears that such a provision would legitimize statutory rape and encourage the practice of child marriage.
Causes and realities of early marriage Bangladesh are complex to explain. Researchers claim that natural disasters, poverty, sexual harassment of unmarried girls and failure by police to stem this harassment are leading to prompt child marriage. In addition, social pressures and traditions, informal start to gossiping behind the unmarried girls, complex social milieu comprised of honour codes, misperceptions, archaic attitudes and misinformation are the main reasons for early marriage.
Moreover, religious ideologies, successive inaction by the government and complicity by local officials in allowing child marriage are responsible for this. Pathetically, there are cases where local government officials issue forged birth certificates showing girls’ ages as over 18, in return of bribes worth as little as US$1.30. There are cases, even when the local officials prevent marriages, families find it easy to hold the marriage in a different jurisdiction. Having set up a wider and contextual socio-historical background, let me now review the on-going debate over child marriage.
On the one hand women and child right based NGOs, civil society members, international organizations, and media are protesting the idea of decreasing the minimum marriage age for girls and criticizing the government’s decisions on this. According to the ICRW, Bangladesh has the fourth-highest rate in the world of child marriage before age 18. Bangladesh has the highest rate of early marriage of girls under the age of 15 in the world, with 29 percent of girls in Bangladesh married before age 15, according to a UNICEF study. Two percent of girls in Bangladesh are married before age 11. These rights based organizations detail the damage that early marriage does to the lives of girls and their families in Bangladesh, including the discontinuation of secondary education, serious health consequences including death as a result of early pregnancy, abandonment, and domestic violence from spouses and in-laws. Therefore, the government proposal to lower the age of marriage for girls on special context sends the opposite message and these organizations fear that this law will reduce the option in regard to access to education for girls while increase social pressure, harassment, and norms of seeking dowry from males during marriage.
On the other hand, Government of Bangladesh is trying to balance between the norms of child rights, international pressure and the harsh realities of the socio-economics in Bangladesh. The GoB is not reducing the age bar, rather age will be kept as it is with more punishments if someone breaks this law, but a special clause will be added for the exceptional cases for ensuring the girl children’s safety if she falls in any exceptional situations. The Prime Minister of Bangladesh supports this by saying “”A law can never be rigid, there must have an alternative in special cases particularly in the case of unexpected pregnancy of any girl under 18. Otherwise, it might be disastrous for the society.”
From my 10 years of field level experiences where I worked with various capacities in the public sector at district level and subdistrict level, I find convincing logic in the decision of the government of incorporating some special clause during child marriage. In most of the laws in the legislation throughout the world, there is a special clause included for special and exceptional cases. We need to acknowledge that we don’t live in an utopian world. The reality might have some peculiar conditions. In the real world of socio-economic conditions, social values, people attitudes and deteriorated law and order situations of Bangladesh, girls sometime may face a strange situation that parents and the girls do not have any alternative expectation but to marry before 18.
However, one should note that this decision might bring some paradoxical situation and contradiction to recent existing policies and development agenda. First, the government is trying to increase girls’ education but this decision is similar to narrowing the window of opportunity. It is also a contradiction with the government’s other initiatives to reduce violence against women. By reducing marriage age we are reinforcing the existing norm of the devaluation of girls. It will not be easier for the government to implement this law/target. Secondly, it is true that in some cases lowering of marriage age for girls is consistent with the socio-economic realities of the country. We all know this as a fact but how that prevents the early marriage of girls that will be a key question. Some people argue by citing the examples of western countries. The socio-economic conditions of Bangladesh and with that of these western countries are not similar. This argument is totally irrelevant, misplaced, and out of context. Thirdly, in reality, a village father does not care about Bangladesh’s commitments at the Girl Summit 2014 or human right movements of the world; he cares about his daughter and his social standing. Integrally linked to this sense of honour are cultural ideas like virginity or purity. Consequently, sexual harassment and unwanted pregnancies are threats to a man’s / family’s social standing. That it also limits a girl’s life choices is almost secondary in consideration. Then the desire for child rights protection is facing challenges. Fourthly, Bangladesh needs to be strict in achievingi) reduction in teen pregnancy, maternal mortality and improvement of women’s health, (ii) improvement in girls’ opportunities to get at least some functional education, (iii) improvement of women’s position in the family, (iv) empowerment of women and girls in making decisions about their own lives etc. But ironically, this decision of special clause may affect these targets negatively.
Bangladesh has achieved gender parity in primary and secondary school enrollment. Maternal mortality declined by 40 percent between 2001 and 2010. Bangladesh is also focused on achieving the SDG targets, like elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Bangladesh’s success in achieving some development goals begs the question of why the country’s rate of early marriage remains so high, among the worst in the world.
Even when the law was with ‘18 year as marriage’ without the special clause, it did not change the reality. Abandoning the practice of early marriage is not the matter of state or law. Rather real questions remain in social norms and economic equality. Why do so many people flout this law is still a mystery. It can be said that either the people don’t understand the law, or the law doesn’t understand the people. And the hard truth is that the searching of gaps in the law is common among Bangladeshi local elites. What we need is to keep eyes open as the watchdog so that any abuse of this special clause does not happen in the future practices.
The writer is a PhD Candidate, Griffith University, Australia, Master of International studies, Kobe University, Japan, BBA and MBA from Dhaka University, has been working with
various capacities in the public sector of Bangladesh since last 10 years