Today, 11 October 2012, is the first-ever “International Day of the Girl Child”! Last year, the United Nations declared that there should be a day highlighting the special challenges that girls all over the world face, each and every single day.
One of those challenges is the constant threat to be married off, at a very young age, often to a much older man! Sadly, for many young girls in Bangladesh, this threat is a constant reality. Studies show that about half of all girls in Bangladesh are married by the age of 16 years, well below the legal age of marriage, which is 18 years.
Shandiza Akter was such a child bride. She was forced to marry at the age of 13 to a much older man. At the time of the wedding, it was agreed that the bridegroom would receive 50 grams of gold and 20 thousand taka as dowry.
Her poor father agreed to the demands. Soon after her wedding, Shandiza found that her husband did not have any job and in fact was involved in drugs smuggling. The cash and the money they received from selling the gold was finished in no-time; this is when the beatings started. Her husband and in-laws demanded more money from her father.
She endured the tortures for 9 long years, a teenage girl, trapped in an abusive marriage. In 2010, now with two children, she could no longer take the abuse and the constant demands for more dowry. She left her husband’s home and ended up in a government-supported ‘Women Support Centre’ where she is now seeking justice from the courts.
Unfortunately, Shandiza’s story is not at all uncommon in Bangladesh. In fact, marrying young girls off has been common practice for long. And it is not limited to slums and rural villages. Some 64% of all girls are married before the age of 18 years; it affects 58% of girls in urban areas and 69% in rural areas. Even more disturbing is the fact that Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriages in the world, with 20% of girls becoming wives before their 15th birthday!
Why is the practice of marrying off young girls so widespread? And why didn’t the practice hardly change over the years? In many societies, including Bangladesh, there is a widespread belief that being married off somehow guarantees young girls a safe and secure passage to adulthood.
Moreover, it is well known that the dowry (or the total sum of money, goods, or estate that a woman or her family is expected to bring into a marriage) increases the older the girl/woman is. This provides a clear incentive to the family of the girl to marry her off at a young age.
But child marriages violate girls’ rights, as girls rarely give their free and full consent to marry, it denies them of their childhood, disrupts their education, jeopardizes their health, and limits their opportunities.
No cultural, religious, or economic rationale for child marriage can possibly justify the damage these marriages do to young girls and their potential. Parents want the best for their children, and therefore need to support their girls’ choices and decisions to marry.
A child marriage doesn’t benefit anyone! Rather, when a girl delays marriage, everyone benefits. A girl who marries later is more likely to stay in school, work, and reinvest her income into her family, which helps to lead her family and eventually her community out of poverty.
She and her family are more educated and healthier. Crucially, a girl who marries later is more empowered to choose whether, when, and how many children to have. This is important, as child marriages can lead to life-threatening health consequences as these young girls are neither physically mature enough nor psychologically ready to become wives and mothers.
Therefore, the time has come to reinvigorate our work to prevent child marriages and to galvanize society to take a stand against child marriage. There is a huge cost to inaction. It is time for policymakers, parliamentarians, communities, families and young people to address this issue head on.
What can we do to break the prevailing practice of child marriage? First and foremost, we must invest in adolescent girls! Educated and healthy girls will stay in school longer, marry later, delay childbearing, have healthier children, develop life skills, and earn higher incomes.
Girls’ education, especially post-primary and secondary, is the single most important factor associated with age at marriage. Girls especially need social support and access to programmes that provide life skills, literacy, livelihoods, and sexual and reproductive health information and services.
Moreover, many current youth-serving programmes are not reaching the most marginalized adolescent girls who continue to be left out or overlooked. Doing more of the same will continue their marginalization. We need to make an effort to identify and reach the most vulnerable girls through programmes that are tailored according to their unique circumstances.
Also, the needs of married girls and girls at risk of child marriage are largely absent from the development agenda. Therefore, bringing greater attention to the situations faced by girls at risk of child marriage and married girls is a must. Child marriage is simply not good socio-economic policy. No country can afford to see the rights, health, and potential of thousands of girls being squandered each day.
Let me conclude with a quote from the UNFPA Executive Director, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin: “Child marriage is an appalling violation of human rights and robs girls of their education, health and long-term prospects. A girl who is married as a child is one whose potential will not be fulfilled. Since many parents and communities also want the very best for their daughters, we must work together and end child marriage!”
On this ‘International Day of the Girl Child’, let us therefore redouble our efforts to end girl child marriages in Bangladesh; they are simply too young to wed! Let girls be girls!
Arthur Erken is, UNFPA Representative, Bangladesh.