Dhaka Thursday October 11, 2012

Too Young to Wed: End Child Marriage The first ever International Day of the Girl Child

UNFPA and The Daily Star organised a roundtable on 'Too Young to Wed: End Child Marriage-
the first ever International Day of the Girl Child' on September 27, 2012. We publish a summary of the discussions



Mahfuz Anam, Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star

Child marriage issue is a national issue. It is a human rights issue, an ethical issue, definitely a political issue and an issue that entails the future of Bangladesh, therefore we must all work to prevent it. Child marriage is a term that camouflages many things. We also do not know the variation of their ages, the average could be 15 or 16 but sometimes even earlier. Basically it is an issue of fundamental rights of the girl who is being married off at an early age. It is influencing the rest of her whole life. There are of course also many happy marriages, but those cannot be the sole base of social policy. Bangladesh has made real advancements in many social indicators, but child marriage continues to be a persistent issue. Print media and audio visual media at this point must play a role. Multi-dimensional presentation of this issue in the media may result in a better situation. Dramas and serials can be very significant tools in fighting this social issue. I would be very happy, from The Daily Star, to take the initiative to inviting other media to address this issue collectively.

Arthur Erken, Country Representative, UNFPA


In 2011, the United Nations designated October 11 as the International Day of Girl Child. This year is the first time this day is being celebrated. UNFPA and The Daily Star have decided to focus on the issue of ending child marriage because, which Bangladesh has made tremendous progress, in the areas of health, education, economic growth, still two-thirds of all girls in this country are married before the legal age of 18 years. Half of all girls are married by the age of 16, and this statistic has not moved much in recent decades. Girls in this country get married off with husbands who are on average nine years older. So, a girl of 15 or 16 gets married to a man of 24 or 25 years old. Policy makers and others concerned about this issue should think why this particular issue is still persistent in Bangladesh. We need to find ways in how to tackle this issue, because child marriage is not only a clear violation of girls' rights, it directly affects the health and well-being of a girl, her family and her community.

Michael Mc Grath, Country Director, Save the Children


Child marriage issue underlies so many problems that affect communities, families, societies and children of Bangladesh. Dealing with this unifying issue will help us to make progress in a very significant way.

Child marriage benefits nobody. Child marriage breaches the girl's rights. Children have a right according to the international law to good health, good education, and protection. From the moment the girl gets married, her husband and his family will decide what her future will be. One of the first casualties of child marriage is that married girls drop out of school and discontinue their education. The girl's health is the next victim. The rate of maternal deaths of under-aged mothers is substantially greater than for older women. Statistics shows that maternal death rate of girls of 14 years and younger is 50 higher than the age of 18 to 20s. The background paper from UNFPA reveals one of the most disturbing issues that young girls are having, namely obstetric fistula. These little girls are too young to have babies. It does tremendous damage to their physiology. It ruins their chances of having enjoyable sexual intercourse; it can ruin their chances of having children; it causes them intestinal problems; it makes them unable to urinate in the usual way; it causes disaster to their life. That can cause them to be abandoned by their husbands or pushed out by their husbands' family. It makes it difficult for them to work and live a normal life. Some cases are curable, some are not. These are direct complications of early marriage and early pregnancy. Moreover, it has a direct impact upon children. The rate of neonatal mortality is 50% higher in case of teenage mothers than matured mothers. Child marriage is going to effect immediately upon the survival rate of the child. How can we seriously think that a mother of 12 or 13 can raise a child? These children will more likely to be sick, are less educated, and will have less negotiation power within their marriage. In addition, under-aged mothers are more vulnerable to domestic violence. Statistics shows that there is 16% increase in domestic violence in Bangladesh for teenage brides.

A baseline study that Save the Children undertook in 2007 showed the average age of marriage was 14.7 years. We have done two studies more since then. One of them showed the average age to be 14.4. And the most recent one showed it to be 14.2 years of age. We can't say that the situation is getting worse, but it certainly didn't get better in the last 5 years in that particular locality. So, this is a really tough nut to crack. Why is this difficult? Why do households make this decision to marry their girls off at an early (before 18 years) age? There are several reasons. One of the reasons is that girls are getting sexual harassed, for instance in the streets on their way to schools. It's called 'eve teasing' in Bangladesh, but sexual harassment is a better term for this, as nobody gets teased, girls and women get physically touched, being called names, and they get talked about in the community in attempts to damage their reputation. It discourages them from going to school. Parents want to safeguard them, want to safeguard their marriage chances, so the girl gets married off by her parents to 'protect' her.

Another reason is dowry. A study showed that there is a very clear linear increase in the dowry for every year the girl's marriage gets delayed. So, as a very poor father he has a reason to marry his girl off earlier. If he waits, it can go to a point where he can no longer afford the dowry or she will be married to someone who is maybe mentally incapacitated or maybe a very old, divorced man. All the local leaders and authorities say that they oppose it, but they are not dealing with the real problem. The issue is that we have to stop harassment, dowry and, consequently, the child marriage across the entire community. We have to work to create a climate where child marriages become unacceptable. We can highlight the economic damage that happen because of child marriages. We should work with communities and the government to develop detailed action plans and to move towards real action. That is the challenge. Bangladesh has shown that it can change! We just need the collective will to do so!

Md. Ashraf Hossain, DG, Department of Women Affairs


From the government side, the DWAis the official promoter of women's empowerment issues. We consider this day important as it raises awareness about gender equality. We mentioned that this day is especially dedicated for the girl child. Still, in our society, a boy gets preference, which is contradictory to the real spirit of gender equality. From that perspective, interventions related to ending child marriages are very relevant.

In that regard, a lot of social campaigns and community mobilization is going on. The culture is such that we are advocating for others to do things, but do not include ourselves. From my official position, I would like to say that we have to combat the curse of child marriage. We have to identify the psycho-social and socio-economic conditions that encouraging child marriage. We have to target future generations, in particular the adolescents in order to make them aware in a positive way. We live in a patriarchal society, where we were being nourished with a lot of gender discriminating practices. We should engage boys as well as girls with different gender sensitive practices. We have already piloted one programme by organizing boys and girls in a club where gender sensitive culture is promoted and to be inculcated in their attitude and practices.

Dr. A.K.M Nurun Nabi, Professor, Department of Population Science, University of Dhaka


“Child marriage does not benefit anyone”. Nobody will contest that statement of Mr. McGrath. Child marriage affects all the targets of MDGs. The health issue is in the centre. The younger the age the girl gets married off, the higher the rate maternal mortality, which is a big concern for us because we have one of the highest rates of child mortality and maternal mortality.

Let me focus on the social aspects of child marriage. The BDHS data shows that for the last 10-12 years, we have only been able to increase the age of first marriage for girls by just 1 year. In the Kabinnama and the marriage registration, the girl should be at least 18 years. But actually it is often 14 years or less. The enforcement of the law is much more needed. The first point is to identify the age of the girl; we need documents like the birth registration certificate for this. We have made it mandatory, but it is not enforced properly. Secondly, when we talk about girls, we advocate for the daughters of others, not for our own daughters. So, we should commit ourselves and should take part. I declared in my department that no one should marry or bear a child for the first two years, otherwise they will lose the chances of obtaining a degree. I can't say I have been successful 100%, but I can motivate them. It is important that we prepare the right kind of communication. Anatomies of the success stories tell us that appropriate message is one of the most important factors. We need to create the environment so that the society cannot pressurize the father to marry off his daughter at an early age. We also need a participatory approach by forming a network at every level, consisting of community leaders, political leaders, teachers and students.

The modification of the existing laws is also important. Sending a father to jail as a punishment may make the situation far worse for a family. It is not the right way to prevent child marriage.

Rokeya Kabir, Executive Director, Nari Progoti Songho


Studies of 2009 show that 30% of the girls become mother at the age of 16,and more than 60% become mother at 17. We have to go farther back to find out the root causes of this situation. In our society, men look for teenage girls as their wives, so that they can dominate them in decision making at every steps of their family life. I would like to share my experience here. I was having a class about gender issue in a programme moderated by government officials. One male participant, who is academically well educated, told the class that he does not think it is right to let married women working outside the home because a man marries a woman for some significant services, not for working outside. Although that person was a government official and well-informed about the laws and constitution, his attitude towards women was shocking. Our perception about women's primary role is the reproductive role.

In our country we also do not have equality in inheritance. Whenever a girl is born in a family the perception is that she does not belongs to the family. Our organization, from the very beginning in the 1990's,started making education gender sensitive, organizing women, and bringing them into the workforce. We are organized a lot of seminars, workshops and studies on the contribution of women in our national economy and how their participation can be improved, how the early marriage and teenage mother affect the family as well as the state from an economic point of view. We are also now piloting some sexual and reproductive health educational programmes. We are working together with the standing committee of the health ministry, the education ministry and the women's affair ministry to introduce this programme.

A gender-sensitive lesson plan should be included in the national curriculum to create the right kind of mind set for both women and men.

Md. Helal Uddin, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Religious Affairs, Bangladesh


The issue of child marriage is not isolated from other major complications of our society. Muslims practice their day-to-day activities to the standards set by our prophet. Our prophet got married at the age of 25.He got his only daughter Fatima married off at the age of 18.So, early marriage is also not permissible according to Islam. According to our law, the minimum age for girls to get married is 18 and for boy it is 21.When a marriage registrar registers a marriage he sometimes writes vague ages of the bride and the groom to avoid punishment. If we can ensure that when the registration is taking place, the registrar should see the SSC certificate or at least the birth certificate to confirm the real age otherwise he could be held in jail. This may reduce the child marriage. We are imparting training to the imams and other religious leaders through the Islamic Foundation. In that curriculum, child marriage is one of the major topics to be discussed upon. I will emphasize on the importance of scrutinizing related papers before marriage registration at our next course for the imams.

Jyoti Dringra, Joint Programme Coordinator , WFP


I would like to bring in another dimension of this issue, which is nutrition. The relationship between nutrition and child marriage is that the younger the mother is, the more likely that the child will be undernourished and an increased rate of maternal and child mortality. The other point is the disempowerment of the girl when she gets married off to a new family; she is at the bottom line of the hierarchy of that family.

The women empowerment issue is directly related to nutrition. This message should be disseminated at the community level. Print and electronic media have a lot to do here to make our community aware.


Julia Ahmed, Freelance Consultant


Child marriage is directly related with the key development indicators that are addressed in our six five year plans- maternal health, child health, child education, woman empowerment and also population control.

In the Violence against Women project of CARE, we had addressed broadly two things. One is evidence-based approach and the other is rights-based approach. For us, evidence is important because child marriage and violence against women are major violation of human rights. Researches show that we have to go for behavior change communication at the grass roots level. Changing of behavior is definitely hard when these people are not conscious about their rights. In our project we have tested, developed and operated field tools. One is behavior change communication tool, which may help to find out the underline causes of violence. We gave the men and women different exercises to figure out how they pass their 24 hour times. From those exercises one thing was very prominent that women are really burdened to ensure their productive, reproductive and other social roles. On the other hand, in the rights-based approach we have developed field tools to fight the criticism that although we have laws and policies, they are not working effectively. We have taken the domestic violence law that says about compensation package and we developed a tool kit to measure the cost of domestic violence. That toolkit actually allows us to record all the costs incurred because of violence against women. The proprietor, the family, the victim, all these information were accumulated. So the direct benefit is that domestic violence is not anymore a private issue. The development workers always have to face a common argument that they are intervening in someone's private life but all these incurring factors prove that while domestic violence occurs in the household, it has effects upon the neighborhoods as well as the society.

Arthur Erken
What I hear is that there is consensus in general over what the motivators are for fathers and the families to marry their girls off at an early age. Firstly, the fear that their daughters will be or are being harassed, so the issue becomes one of security and prestige for the girl and the family. The second issue is dowry. If these are the main drivers behind child marriage, how can we ensure the security for the family so that it decides to continue their girl's education? We have discussed a lot about what the problems are. But the real issue is how to tackle the situation. How to create a conducive environment in which child marriage is no longer acceptable? I would like to hear more about the solutions to the problem.


Rowshon Ara, Member, Naripokkho and Dhaka Ahsania Mission


We are working at the grass roots level to prevent child marriage. The most important point is that the community people try to hide the information from the law enforcement bodies when it comes to child marriage. The second fact is that we generally use the birth certificate to verify the age of a girl or a boy. But that is a problem when community people collude with the perpetrators.

Parents think that late marriage will create a burden in the form of a larger amount of dowry. So they arrange early marriage for their daughter willingly. Girls are also being harassed at or on the way to their school. Parents also have to face odd talks for sending their daughter to school. We have a law but the proper implementation needs more initiatives. Although government provides some incentives, which motivate the parents to send their girls to school, but these are not sufficient. We need far more budget as well social awareness.

Towhida Khondker, Director, Bangladesh National Women Lawyer Association (BNWLA)


No doubt child marriage is a curse for us. But what is the solution? As a lawyer I would like to talk from the perspective of law. In Bangladesh there is a Child Marriage Restraint Act, enacted in 1929. From my experience I have never seen any case filed under this law. One cause is there are lots of loopholes in the existing law. We also have the Muslim Marriage and Registration Act of 1974. It is also not implemented effectively. Who are the responsible authorities to implement these laws? The reality is that the proper persons have no clear knowledge about their duties and its effectiveness. At my organization, we are working for the establishment of children and women rights, promotion of the gender equality at the local community level by making people aware.

Recently, in 2012, we have filed a petition before the High Court to announce a guideline regarding direction to register all the marriages in our country as far following the national identity card.

In our country, solemnizing the child marriage is an offense, but does not void the marriage if it has happened. This is the conflict of the existing law. On the other hand the Kazi, they have the license to register the marriage but no proper knowledge about our marriage law. BNWLA is operating different programmes, like vote parenting to ensure the child right at the village community level. There are also many initiatives from the government. Finally, proper implementation needs joint efforts of the government and the NGOs.

Md. Helal Uddin
There are 55 volume of law in our country but the enforcement situation is miserably poor. High Court also has issued a lot of rules and the enforcement is again 'debatable.' We need some thorough studies on the effectiveness of the existing Acts regarding these issues, which may help to find out the loopholes. We have to ensure the maximum impact of the laws.

Arthur Erken
There is a tendency that we need more laws, but the reality is that there are enough laws. The problem is the enforcement of these laws. But moreover, the way the fathers and the family act regarding marrying off their young girl that is not only because of lack of knowledge. They have strong rationale behind it. It probably fits certain social beliefs and economic rationale. So the point is that we have to create the environment, where the family will be encouraged to send their daughters to school rather than marrying them off.

Brig Gen (Retd.) Shahedul Anam Khan, Editor, Op-Ed and Strategic Issues
In our society household works is not recognized as economic work. So according to many families, women do not do anything, she is a burden on men. These perceptions should be addressed seriously.

Mamunur Rashid, Coordinator, Gender and development communication Centre (GDCC), Steps Towards Development


We have plenty of laws but no implementation. I want to clarify that there is punishment for arranging child marriage, but the marriage cannot be revoked. If anything is done illegally that should be revoked. So, the marriage that is occurred illegally should be automatically void and cannot be registered legally.

Coming to the discussion of loopholes of the marriage registration issue, yes there is a High Court verdict, and government issued a circular to register all marriages, which includes the verification of birth certificate and national identity card .But in the registration form there is no place to write down the birth certificate number or the national ID number. So, you cannot really verify from the registration form. We are advocating the government to include these items in the form.

Tanvir Wahid, Member, UNFPA Youth Forum for Reproductive Health


I would like to show some statistics regarding early marriage which are really alarming for our country. In a recent BBC News item, it has been reported that Bangladesh has one of the highest rate of child marriages in the world. Some 20% of all girls are becoming wives before their 15thbirthday. These statistics clearly indicate that we have poor knowledge about this issue. We should emphasize more on awareness raising programmes. We need to aware all categories of people, not only in the cities, but also in the villages. We need a complete mixture of the traditional and new strategies. As a youth delegate, I recommend some issues from the perspective of youth. We can form a dedicated youth team to make people aware about the issue. Second one is that child marriage issues should be included in the school books, including the causes and dire consequences of the child marriage. Third one is that we can organize different types of competition like writing competition, quiz competition, film through which young people could be engaged. Nowadays, social media is very popular. We can disseminate child marriage related information through twitter and other networks.

Towhida Khondker

We have to provide our government officials and local representative with training on the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961.

Michael McGrath

There should be a legal requirement that the following people have to sign a statement that no dowry was paid and no financial benefits have been obtained from the marriage. Both parents and spouses will sign that. This would have been useful in the event if it is discovered that a child marriage has occurred, then the dowry will be automatically forfeited and returned to the girl's parents. It will do two things. Firstly it will discourage dowry and secondly it will prevent child marriage. Another suggestion is that no legal punishment, but administered sanction against perpetrators. In China, any government official at any level who marries off his daughter under 18 is not entitled to promotion and loses their bonuses.

It would it be useful that anumber of people have to sign the marriage form that the girl is over 18,including the teacher and both parents. It would be helpful that if it is found that child marriage has been occurred then the registrar will lose his license. It would be helpful if community leaders would flag individually that they are against child marriage.

Aminul Islam, Child Protection Specialist, Unicef


I want to look at the child marriage issue from two different angles. One is the social norm; child marriage is a harmful practice. We are working with the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs by organizing community clubs where people talk about these issues and adolescents can learn how to negotiate on these issues.

Another angle is enforcement of law. From the legal perspective, determination of age is very important. From UNICEF, we are helping the government to improve the situation of birth registration. It will be digitalized. Getting fake certificates will be difficult now. And very soon a circular is coming that from now on certificate has to be issued electronically. The other point is the use of birth certificates by the kazis. Digitalization would help the kazis to verify whether the birth certificate submitted to them is real or vague. Another point declaring the marriage illegal is very important.Atpresent Child Marriage Restraint Act is not declaring the marriage illegal or void.

We have 14 to 16 community radio stations that can be an useful way of communication.

Mamunur Rashid
Around 10 to 12% of Bangladeshi population is from Hindu community. They do not have any system of marriage registration until last year. Still the system is an optional one but it should be made compulsory and that will also help decrease child marriage.

Mahfuza Rahman,Project Officer - Education,UNESCO


I would like to emphasize upon education building because in McGrath's presentation the first casualty of a child marriage was education. The modification of text books is one thing but the other thing is the implementation issue. In Bangladesh, we have to make things mandatory to make it happen. In the primary education sector we can make it mandatory to talk with the community leaders about child marriage issue.

We cannot overburden the curriculum and the text books. Discussion should be arranged in the non-formal sector. This will also work for behavioral change.



Sonya Soheli, Member, UNFPA Youth Forum for Reproductive Health


I would like to talk about what we as youth can do. Charity begins at home like the saying goes; we can start education from home. We can spread the message starting from our drivers, guards and maids that child marriage must not be practiced. We can take these steps forward using social networking. We can post articles, statuses and share it with our friends. So that they can also be able to update the current scenario and feel motivated to aware people who are at their surroundings.



Jyoti Dringra

I would like to take the point about safeties of girls because lack of it leads to marry the girls off at the earlier age. Safety net programmes could be very relevant. We could think of a safety net programme that starts at the birth of the girl. A social fund is established in her name, and if the girl is not married by the time of 18, the family gets certain amount of money.

Michael McGrath
Save the Children has been involved in a programme where cooking oil is provided as incentive to girls not to get married. The result of the study is still being processed. Till then we are a little bit confused about the efficiency and usefulness of the programme to give cooking oil to each girls who are not married. The concept is interesting from the sense that the unmarried girl till her 18 is being helpful for her family in a way.

Arthur Erken
It is clear that this topic generated a lot of anxiety and interest.There seems to be no disagreement on what causes child marriage. The social factors and economic factors are driving it to a large extent. As a first step, what we should do immediately is enforcing the law. Another low hanging fruit is introduction of a digitized birth registration system.

What is more harder to do is that how we can bring our communities together to create an environment in which child marriages are no longer happening. Multiple factors are influencing the decision within families to marry their daughters off at a young age. We need to make families and communities aware that, ultimately, child marriage benefits no one. I think that it is a real powerful message coming out of this roundtable.

The idea of establishing a social fund for girls is another very interesting idea that deserves further attention and study. Finally, it is important that we empower our adolescents. Why their decisions are taken on behalf them? We have already seen many cases whereby school-going youth have stopped their friend's marriage. This is the result of youth empowerment. We have to say to them that you can actually stop child marriage.

I thank you all for your presence and excellent contributions to this roundtable.