The health and education of a girl are threatened when she is married off at a young age. The situation, experts observe, worsens if that leads to early pregnancy, contributing to the rising number of premature births.
Two outstanding issues need to be addressed to end this condition: men's perception of boosting their financial status through dowry and the feeling of insecurity in girls' families, mostly belonging to the low-income group, they said at a roundtable at The Daily Star centre in the capital.
The English daily and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) jointly organised the discussion, "Too young to wed: end child marriages- the first ever international day of the girl child".
In December last year, the United Nations declared October 11 International Day of Girl Children. "Ending Child Marriage" has been set as the theme for the first year celebration of the day.
Addressing the programme, Arthur Erken, a representative of UNFPA, Bangladesh, said the country had made tremendous progress in lowering the rate of child marriage. "Yet, it is still there."
An end to the persistent social practice calls for a law against child marriages, raising awareness in communities and changing social norms, he said.
Michael McGrath, country director of Save the Children Bangladesh, said, "Child marriage benefits none." Girl children's rights, including education, are denied through this. Besides, early marriages of girls lead to early pregnancies that most often cause physiological damage to them during childbirth.
Sometimes they end up getting divorced for failing to recover, and with very little chance of remarriage, they become a burden on their families, Michael explained.
"Everyone loses in the end," he noted.
The media can play a significant role in raising awareness among people about the grave consequences of child marriage, said Mahfuz Anam, editor and publisher of The Daily Star.
Socio-economic conditions, such as poverty, that influence child marriage must be addressed, said Ashraf Hossain, director general of the Department of Women Affairs.
Child marriage has repercussions and steps should also be taken to instil these in future generations, he said.
Prof AKM Nurun Nabi of the population science department of Dhaka University said 18 had been set as the legal age for girls to get married but there was no way to identify the age of a girl because births were not always registered.
There were loopholes in the existing law that has restricted marriage under 18, said Towhida Khandakar, director of Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association. Birth and marriage certificates had to be digitised so that no one could go unpunished after violating the law, she added.
In rural areas, men prefer young women for marriage to have full control over them, said Rokeya Kabir, executive director of Bangladesh Nari Pragati Sangha.
The issue should be incorporated in the national curriculum in a bid to change perceptions among future generations, she added.
Md Helal Uddin, joint secretary of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, said awareness programme and the process of enacting a law must go simultaneously.
"For instance, we have been training imams (religious leaders) through the Islamic Foundation to raise awareness about the demerits of child marriages. But it should also be made mandatory to produce birth registration certificates at the time of marriage."
What the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) did was educating people about the issue, said Mahfuza Rahman, a project officer at Unesco. Such education would help bring about changes in attitude towards child marriage.
Early marriage puts a child's life into uncertainty, said Jyoti Dhingra, joint coordinator of the World Food Programme. A young girl moves into a new family through marriage but is not given authority to say anything about family affairs, he added.
Rowshan Ara, a member of Naripokkho, an organisation working for women's rights, said that when a girl grew up, her family suffered from a sense of insecurity, for which the father often wanted to marry her off.
"In reality, it is difficult to ensure the social security that might have ended this."
Julia Ahmed, a rights activist, said, "Behavioural change communication may play an important role in changing people's acceptability of child marriage, which is a violation of human rights. Also, we have observed that domestic violence is closely related to child marriage."
Mamunur Rashid, coordinator of Steps Towards Development, said the rate of child marriage might decrease if poor fathers were provided with financial help for not marrying their daughters off at an early stage.
Shahedul Anam Khan, editor (Oped & Defence & Strategic Affairs) of The Daily Star, moderated the discussion. Tanvir Wahid and Sonya Soheli of UNFPA also spoke on the occasion.