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“Girls are old at 20”: The social pressure behind child marriage in Bangladesh

 
In Bangladesh, many girls who don't marry by the time they turn 18 are considered too old for marriage. 📷Photograph: Shahana, 14 with her son Karim

A good proportion of girls across Bangladesh go to the marriage bed before reaching the age of 18. Indeed, the average age for marriage for girls in our country is just 16.4 years old.

According to the latest 2007 Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey (BDHS), 66 per cent of women aged 20 to 24 were married before the age of 18. In addition, UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children 2011 report revealed that one-third of Bangladeshi women now aged between 20-24 were married off by the age of 15.

Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, but you might be surprised to learn that the practice has been prohibited in Bangladesh for nearly eight decades. The legal age for marriage – 21 for boy; 18 for girls – was established by the National Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929.

Moreover, Bangladesh acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1984, which stipulates 18 as the minimum marriage age. Bangladesh also signed the UN Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages in 1998. This Convention requires signatory states to obtain consent from both parties entering into a marriage and to establish a legal minimum age for marriage.

The National Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929, which was revised in 1984, holds a provision of punishment for whoever performs, conducts, or directs child marriage – perpetrators can face imprisonment of up to a month with a fine of 1,000 taka (around $12.20 USD).

Laws exist, but why does child marriage persist?

Despite all these provisions that make child marriage illegal in our country, girls continue to be married off very young in Bangladesh. Loose intervention by the authorities to stop child marriage is a major factor. Poverty, too, triggers the early marriage of girls who are often considered as an economic and social burden by their families.

Poor families think the birth of a male child is a heavenly gift, while the birth of a girl child is still treated as a curse

Tithe Farhana

Take Ruma’s story as an example. Ruma is 18 years old and lives in a tin-shed hut in the Mirpur slums of Dhaka with her 29 year-old husband, Jony, who works as a pick-up van driver. They got married four years ago and have a 2 ½ year-old daughter. “When I was in love, I thought family life would be enjoyable. But now, I think it was a bad decision,” says Ruma who once went to school regularly. “What do I do now after marriage? Take care of my son, wash dishes, clean the floor, wash clothes, and cook,” she says, with a regretful tone.

Ruma’s mother, Rokheya Banu, said she gave consent to her daughter’s marriage as it became difficult to bear her expense. “I feared I would have to pay a huge dowry if she was married off at a later age,” she said. Rokeya, a widow, was also married off at the age of 14. She is now 35 years old.

As we see in Ruma’s story, parents who live in poverty are attracted by the prospect of lower dowry payments if they marry their daughters off at an early age. The demand of dowry increases in parallel with age so families marry off young girls as early as possible to escape this burden. Due to the pressure of dowry, poor families think that birth of a male child is a heavenly gift, while the birth of a girl child is still treated as a curse.

Social Pressures and Traditional Customs

In addition to poverty and the culture of dowry, activists believe that traditional customs, patriarchal family structures, people’s mindset towards girls, illiteracy, and security concerns are the root causes for child marriage in Bangladesh.

Social Stigma

In a male dominated society like Bangladesh, a girl always has to remain alert against social stigma. A girl has to bear the stigma, even though miscreants harass her. To escape such troubles, parents become eager to marry off their daughters as soon as they reach adolescence.

Old at 20

Khuritay Buri is a Bangladeshi proverb meaning “Bengali girls become old when they turn 20.” The proverb clearly reflects social compulsion and the mindset of people keen to marry girls off at an early age.

A Father’s “Ultimate Duty”

People think that girls should be married off at an early age for their familial happiness and to enable them to learn household chores and responsibilities. A father thinks that it is the ultimate duty of his life to marry off his daughter. That is why he wants to discharge his duty within the shortest possible time. A father, who most of the time is the sole decision-maker in a family, often arranges marriage for the teenage girl without consulting his daughter, or even his wife. The head of the family thinks he always does the right thing and intends to run the family in an autocratic manner. Mr. Amjad Hussain, father of four daughters and a rickshaw puller in Dhaka city, commented: “As a poor man I am unable to continue to arrange the basic primary education to my daughters; for this, I needed to marry my daughters.” Three of his daughters have already gotten married before the age of 15.

No Voice

Due to patriarchal family culture, a teenage girl has little opportunity to raise her voice against any decisions taken by her guardians.

Early Marriage is Not Exclusive to the Poor

The practice of child marriage is not confined to the poor – child marriages prevail in rich families, too. In many cases, wealthier parents marry off their young daughters with older business tycoons to expand their businesses.

Deprived of Education, Girls Become Lifeless Dolls

Being deprived from the light that education provides, child brides are mostly confined within the four walls of the house and grow up like lifeless dolls – instead of empowered human beings. They have neither the courage nor the ability to protest any decision imposed on them “irrationally” by the family.