How birth certificates help tackle child marriage

Rubi’s life could have been very different. Four years ago, age 15, Rubi took an exam for her Secondary School Certificate. She rushed home to share her results with her family, but when she arrived, she was told that her parents had arranged her marriage.

“I was so sad because all I wanted to do was share the good news of my exam results, but that changed once I realised they had arranged my marriage,” says Rubi, who comes from Dinajpur, a district in the north of Bangladesh.

Rubi, 19, a vibrant, ambitious girl and the oldest sibling in a family of 10, was unable to convince her family that she was too young to get married.

Desperate and not knowing where to turn, Rubi told Plan International’s partner organisation, her high school friends and school teacher.

As an ambassador of the organisation’s global Because I am a Girl campaign, Rubi had long been involved with children’s charity Plan, raising awareness of the importance of birth registration and other key issues, and so she knew the legal age of marriage in Bangladesh was 18.

Together, they visited the Union Council Office to meet with the chairman, who Rubi knew due to her involvement with the local child forum group, to explain her situation.

Advocating for her rights

“I told him [the Chairman of the Union Parishad] that I have the right to an education until age 18 and that my parents must honour that. The chairman went to my home and tried to speak to my parents, but initially they weren’t convinced,” says Rubi.

Together, Rubi and her parents went to chairman’s office. At first, her parents tried to discreetly change the age on Rubi’s birth certificate, but the chairman put a stop to it. After several visits and discussions, the chairman spoke to Rubi’s parents about the legal implications of child marriage and convinced them to abandon the arranged marriage.

According to Rubi’s parents, they tried to arrange their daughter’s marriage as they couldn’t afford Rubi’s education and general upbringing.

“Now, I realise it was good for Rubi that her marriage didn’t take place when she was a child,” explains her father.

The value of the birth certificate

Currently, the law in Bangladesh requires parents to register births within 45 days. There is a penalty (US$65) for delayed registration, but up until recently, without adequate information on the importance of birth registration, many parents delay registering their child’s birth until it’s necessary.

For Rubi, that time came when she was six and denied admission to primary school because she was unable to provide a birth certificate. Her parents took Rubi to the local government and were able to applied for a birth registration card. With that Rubi was able to attend primary school.

Child marriage context

Birth registration can also counteract child marriage – a global issue. Bangladesh has the second-highest rate of child marriage in the world, second only to Niger. A 2013 report[1] commissioned by Plan International in Bangladesh demonstrates that 64% of all women aged 20–24 were married before the age of 18.

According to Plan’s research, conducted as part of the Because I am a Girl campaign, marriage is widely considered a family matter and in Bangladesh it is most common for the father to make the decision regarding his daughter’s marriage. Parents and wider family members may believe that by arranging marriages with a groom, they are providing girls with social and economic security.

Globally, 1 in 5 girls around the world is denied an education by the daily realities of poverty, violence and discrimination. Every day, girls are taken out of school, married far too young, and subjected to violence in school. Not only is this unjust, it’s also a huge waste of potential with serious global consequences.

Birth registration has the potential to play a crucial role in reducing child marriage in, but this is reliant on enforcement of existing laws and comprehensive systems in place to register major life events, including deaths, marriages, adoptions and births.

Child marriage, birth registration and the wider spectrum of civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) are high on the agenda of governments in Asia as they look beyond the Millennium Development Goals and towards the post-2015 agenda.

With 135 million children effectively invisible because they have not been registered, the region’s governments will come together November 24-28 for the Ministerial Meeting on CRVS in Asia-Pacific to agree on a framework to ensure all countries have effective CRVS systems in place along with strong legal systems to support their implementation.

A family advocating for birth registration

As for Rubi, she continues to be active with Plan, serving as a community worker and conducting family surveys on a variety of issues. Rubi regularly meets with families, very much like her own, to get a better understanding of their knowledge and awareness of critical issues.

She is also spreading her message far and wide. In 2011, she travelled to Australia to share her personal story on the plight of child marriage and the importance of birth registration and she also spoken about the challenges of growing up in rural Bangladesh.

The future is now looking much brighter for Rubi, who is studying Islamic History.

“After getting my birth certificate, I have been able to move ahead. I want to say to everybody: please get your births registered – not only for school or to get a job, this certificate proves your identity,” Rubi says.

“Previously in our area, people did not understand the advantages and disadvantages of birth registration. In the last five years, we have arranged different types of awareness activities, so that our community could understand the importance of birth certificates. Now, our community cares about the issue,” she adds.

Rubi now aspires to be a teacher. “From childhood, I always wished to work for my society. In the future, when I am an adult I plan to support my community,” she says with a beaming smile.

To find out more about how young people are advocating for universal birth registration at the Ministerial Meeting on CRVS, visit http://plan-international.org/teamcrvs and http://getinthepicture.org

[1] Child Marriage in Bangladesh, Findings from a National Survey 2013, Plan International Bangladesh