The Girls of Buraburi Union
Audity Falguni Gayen
The Bengali saying goes, “(Girls are) Old at twenty” (Kuri-te buri). Nowadays, because of advances in women's education, the growing contributions of women in the workplace, industrialization and urbanization, growing awareness about health, getting married and having children late is helping urban women extend their youth to much longer than what is used to be. But what is the fate of the millions in rural Bangladesh?
The Buraburi Union is located in Kurigram, the small township where ancient ideas about women's aging still prevail. Women get married at 12-15 years of age and they return home to their parents at 16-19 years of age with a child or two for their inability to pay the dowry or other reasons. The people of Buraburi Union believe that if a woman dies unmarried, her kumari (virgin) soul roams around the area to frighten people. Although the parents know very well that their daughters will probably get divorced in about six months to three years time and will probably have a child, another mouth to be feed, they still insist that their daughters finish up their schooling and quickly get married, so that they don't have to end up kumtas or kumaris.
“The older a girl is, the greater the disrepute for not being married. A younger girl needs to pay less in the form of dowry to get married. Our land has been eroded by the river. I have two younger brothers. I was married when I was a student of class six. I am not sure exactly how much of a dowry was paid. Later my husband divorced me,” said 16-year-old Sheuli. She was married off nearly two years ago. She had been divorced, apparently because of her parents' inability to pay the dowry within a year of the wedding.
Sheuli belongs to a group of about 16 divorced girls of Shatbhita Bhellipara village of Buraburi Union who were working at the sewing center of the local NGO Gram Unnayan Kendro (GUK). There are around a 100 divorced teenaged girls in Shatbhita Bhellipara and the four adjoining villages.
“I was married off to a crazy man when I was thirteen. The marriage ended three years later. My son was only two years old then. Now he is 10 years old,” said the 25-year-old Roksana.
Mother of three girls Mosleha arranged the weddings of all her daughters while they were in their teens. When asked about the dowry for the marriage of her daughters, she said she gave ten thousand taka to a son-in-law. “My sons-in-law do farming work, so they need money” she said.
On 27th April, Action Aid Bangladesh (AAB) and local NGO Gram Unnayan Kendro (GUK) had a joint spot visit at the Shatbhita Bbhellipara village of the Buraburi Union, Kurigram. There we talked with the divorced teenaged girls of the village and their parents and guardians. We understood the underlying problem of poverty that forced the parents of girls to marry them off at a very young age and pay a relatively low dowry. Other important issues are divorce due to inability to pay dowry, the failure of government stipends for the education of girls, and the problems regarding women's health. We met these divorced young girls and their parents at the home of Kulsum, a volunteer at GUK. Kulsum is the lone unmarried 'aged' woman of this village (she is around 22-23 years). Her father wanted to marry her off but she resisted. She said she would agree to the marriage but wanted the right to divorce right afterwards. “My father and cousins then mercilessly beat me, but the marriage did not take place,” she said. She told us that she later passed her S.S.C. and H.S.C. examinations and is now volunteering for the GUK. Kulsum's younger sister Rina (19) was later given to marriage at age fifteen. Kulsum paid a ten thousand taka dowry and a bike to her younger sister's husband. All was in vain as a seven month pregnant Rina had to return home after an extra taka twenty thousand was demanded.
“My in-laws even refused to provide me with three meals during Ramadan during my pregnancy. If a bride's family fails to pay dowry, the in-laws give her either sehri or iftari but they never give her three proper meals even if she is pregnant. If you leave your husband they would say, 'we are poor!'” said Rina. “My husband has not paid a single paisa to raise my son till now. But recently he has been threatening to take my son back as he grows up”
We met a number of other divorced girls here: Anju (19), Jyotsna (19), Sheuli (16), Marjina (15), Sufia (15), Renu (16) and others. Anju and her younger sister Renu are both divorced and childless. Their other two sisters are still unhappily married.
“The erosion of our homes has turned us into beggars. This is why we cannot pay the dowry. There is an ancient saying: women and monkeys have the same fate! When a son is born, at least he can later claim some dowry”, a mother said.
“Who would feed me? Neither the husband, nor the father or the brothers. You must have your own earnings,” the women said.
We then asked them that if they understand that they themselves would need to work for survival, why do they become desperate to get their daughters married off so early? They answered, “You marry sooner or later, so why not get it over with sooner? Besides, you need more dowry to marry late,” said Jyotsna.
The problem of the Buraburi Union, Kurigram, is poverty. People living in Buraburi and its adjacent regions: Anantapur, Old and New Anantapur, Kasir Hat, Begumganj, Ulipur and Chilmari are mainly victims of the rivers Brahmaputra, Tista, Dharala causing erosion. These victims cannot afford to send their daughters to schools for too long.
Enamul Karim, employee of local GUK, told us, “Villagers often pass comments regarding our activities. They don't like our sewing program with these adolescent girls. As I'm a young man, some have made critical remarks on my working and interacting with these girls.”
An official of BRAC Legal Aid Cell, Ulipur, said, “Young men come to work in these shoal regions during the harvest season. Parents arrange marriages of their daughters to these men for a low dowry even though they know the man might flee. The new bridegroom leaves and goes to Dhaka, Chittagong or any other city within three months to one year of the marriage. He never comes back.”
Most of the time, these divorced girls cannot return to school. One exception is Nila (not her real name) who returned to complete her S.S.C. and H.S.C. against her father's consent and later passed her M.B.B.S. from Rangpur Medical College. Now she is practicing medicine in Rangpur.
The crisis of the divorced teenaged girls of Buraburi Union, Kurigram, was first identified by an international development worker Dhivhana De La Puente. Dhivhana, who came to work with Action Aid Bangldesh (AAB) as a volunteer, was moved by the plight of the divorced mothers of Buraburi Union. She donated her own honorarium for setting up a sewing center in Shatbhita Bhellipara village of Buraburi, Kurigram. Later, Rebeca Zapata, another foreign volunteer of AAB visited Buraburi on February 2006 to find out the alternate livelihood options for the adolescent girls of this village. When we visited the sewing center of the divorced girls of Shatbhita Bhellipara, the girls were sewing a European Union logo.
The masses of the women of Bangladesh are still chained to hundreds of societal constraints that hold them back. The leaders and policymakers of the country should do their best to fight the practice of dowry, make proper rules for the man to pay the dower, and make sure legal measures affect the grass roots.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007