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“Your girl has grown up”


Prothom Alo illustrationA law has been enacted to prevent child marriage and the provisions within the law are being made stricter. In many areas where child marriages are taking place, the UNO (Upazila Nirbahi Officer) and police arrive on the spot and thwart these attempts. As a result, the rate of child marriage has dropped somewhat, but not significantly.

In the global index regarding child marriage, Bangladesh ranks fourth. That was four or five years ago when the rate was just over 14 per cent. Just over three decades ago, this rate was as high as 73 per cent. It has dropped drastically since then. However, it was lower a few years ago than it is now.

These facts were revealed in demographic data presented at a Prothom Alo roundtable on 9 December last year, by Prof. Mohammad Billal Hossain of Dhaka University’s department of population science. He said that there has been a decrease in child marriage rates in Bangladesh, but not in proportion to the rapid socio-economic development that is taking place.

The roundtable on child marriage was supported by UNFPA. Prothom Alo has held similar roundtables on child marriage, with the cooperation of various other development partners and non-government organisations. Ministers and policymakers attend these roundtables and everyone is committed to reduce the rate of child marriage.

Unfortunately, the results have not been promising. In urban areas child marriage may be less, but in rural areas, among the marginalised poor, and even in city slums, girls are being married off even before they are 13 or 14. This is a common practice.

The law proclaims that no girl can marry before 18 and no boy before 21. Violation of this law is a punishable crime.

There are, however, loopholes in the law, with a lot of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, which allow the age restriction to be sidestepped. And the consent of the girl and the guardians is also required in such cases. Further provisions are being drawn up to make it more difficult to carry out child marriage.

There is so much noise against child marriage. There are roundtables, the media is vocal and so are experts on the issue, but to no avail. Why are the policymakers failing to take effective measures in this regard?

I questioned certain UNFPA officials about the matter. They said that there has been some progress. All this talk has made some impact. More stringent conditions are being added to the child marriage prevention law to address the loopholes and prevent manipulation of the clauses. The prohibitions in the law are quite strong. All this is a result of expert views expressed at these roundtables.

If the law is so strict, why is the rate of child marriage not coming down? What is the matter?

Some experts have said that in the villages when a girl is 13 or 14, in some cases even just 10 or 11, the elders say, “your girl has grown up and needs to be married off.” The parents are then determined to get her married. This is a social problem.

It is the elders who say she needs to be given in marriage. In our country, particularly among poorer classes, a girl is ‘given’ in marriage, she does not ‘get’ married. She has no say in the matter. The law may talk about the girl’s consent, but the hard fact remains that she is simply married of by her family at a young age which no choice whatsoever.

Fundamental changes are imperative.

One of the reasons behind these early marriages is the local hooligans. On one hand, doors are being opened to girls’ education with the government offering free schooling, scholarships and other facilities in the villages. Yet on the other hand, girls find it hard to go to school due to these rowdy louts hanging around, harassing them, making lewd comments. Then again there is the propensity to criticise women and level false accusations against them, to belittle them. Repression of women is also on the rise. That is why many families feel it is best to marry their girls off as early as possible. They see this as security, safety.

Then there are the manipulations by guardians and unscrupulous persons. They pay a little extra to falsify birth certificates and make the girl appear older than she actually is. Even the marriage registrars are often party to these underhand dealings. If the police and the authorities obstruct a child marriage, they simply go to another upazila and perform the marriage there. Some families have actually registered their daughter’s marriage on a boat in the middle of a river. Desperate measures to avoid the police!

At the roundtable held that day, discussants said that while steps must be taken in enforce the law against child marriage, legal action must also be taken against the local young men who harassed the girls. This has become a serious problem. Public awareness also needs to be mobilised.

Why has the minimum age of marriage for a girl been set at 18? In the past, many may reason, girls were married when they were 13 or 14. So what is the problem now? They should realise that back then the girls were married early and had children when they were too young. As a result, many died during child birth. Infant mortality was also high due to the mother being too young. And many of the girls who survived, faced all sorts of medical complications. When a girl is a child herself, how can she give birth to a well developed child? In the past they were ignorant. But in modern times, how can one walk in this predicament knowing all the risks involved? This is a violation of the girls’ fundamental rights.

Women must also be discouraged from having their first child before 20 years of age. In fact, this could be a law. After all, a woman’s body is hardly ready for a healthy childbirth before 20. Many of us do not realise this.

We no longer want to hear, “your girl is grown up”. If we want women’s empowerment, we must drastically reduce child marriage. We should not wait for 2041. This target must be met by 2030. If we can bring the incidence of child marriage almost down to zero within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) time frame, that will stand as a exemplary achievement for women’s empowerment.

*This article, originally appeared in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.

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