Dhaka Sunday July 1, 2012

Preventing Child Marriage

Lack of awareness and monitoring hinders progress

Mahbubur Rahman Khan

An actor performs in a skit about child marriage (right) at a village in ChapaiNawabganj. Behind him, members of the community watch. His drama group is raising awareness on trafficking and child marriage, which is part of community education programmes organized by UNICEF.

Agood proportion of girls across the country enter into wedlock before reaching the age of 18, despite the practice being proscribed about eight decades ago. This is mainly due to loose intervention by the authorities to stop child marriage.

Due to lack of awareness and taking the advantage of weak monitoring system, parents continue to marry off their under-aged daughters secretly.

Though the government high-ups claimed that the ratio of child marriage is waning, they failed to give any figure as they do not have any survey on this issue.

“We are working to reduce the ratio of child marriage considering it a social problem”, said Director General of Department of Women Affairs Ashraf Hossain in a response to a query on how they carry out their work in the absence of any data on child marriage.

According to Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey (2007), 66 per cent of women aged 20-24 were married before the age of 18 and the average age for marriage of girls is 16.4 years against 16.0 of the previous BDHS report (2004).

The legal age for marriage is 21 for boys and 18 for girls, established by the National Child Marriage Restraint Act in 1929 in Bangladesh. Moreover, Bangladesh acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1984, which prohibits child marriage, stipulating 18 as the minimum age in its General Recommendation 21 in 1979.

Bangladesh also signed to the UN Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages in 1998. This Convention requires signatory states to obtain consent from both parties entering into a marriage and to establish a legal minimum age for marriage.

Despite the legislation and being signatory to these conventions, the State of the World's Children 2011 report of UNICEF revealed that one-third of women aged between 20-24 are found married off by the age of 15.

Early marriage pushes girls to premature motherhood while they are not ready physically, physiologically and psychologically to shoulder the responsibilities of marriage and childbearing at this age, said Dr Bilkis Begum, Gynecological Consultant of Dhaka Medical College Hospital.

Teenage mothers are prone to obstructed delivery and other severe childbirth- and pregnancy-related complications, she added.

Dr Bilkis observed that such complications trigger higher morbidity rate for both mothers and children though mortality risk is reduced due to improved health service.

She also held early marriage responsible for population explosion.

"A girl, who is married at the age of 14, has possibilities to become mother of at least three children by the age of 24. If she is married off at the age 24, she would get less time for cenception", she explained.

Early marriage is also one of the most vital causes for broken families, she observed.

According to the BDHS report, one-third of women are either pregnant or become mothers by the age of 20.

Nodi, aged 19, lives with her 25-year-old husband Jony in a tin-shed hut at Dolairpar of Dhaka. They got married four years ago and have a 2.5 year-old daughter.

“When I was in love, I thought family life will be enjoyable. But now, I think it was a bad decision”, said Nodi who once went to school regularly.

"What do I do now after marriage? Taking care of my son, washing dishes, cleaning the floor, washing clothes and cooking," she regretted.

Jony is a pick-up van driver at the capital's Dolaikhal.

Nodi's mother Bilkis Begum said she gave consent to her daughter's marriage as it became difficult to bear her expense. “I feared I would have to pay a huge dowry if she is married off at a later age,” she added.

Bilkis, who is a widow, was also married off at the age of 14. She is now 35 years old.

Nodi faced severe problems during the birth of her child, and promised that she will not make the same mistake twice.

“I realize how painful it is to become a mother at such a young age. I won't marry off my daughter before 18”, she said with conviction.

A report of Bengali daily Prothom Alo published on 04 December 2011, about 612 child marriages conducted at three upazilas of Rajshahi. Mitra and Associates, a research organization led a survey in Thakurgaon on child marriage which shows that almost 70 per cent brides who were married off in 2008 were less than 16 years old.

Nasima Akhtar Jolly, secretary of National Girl Child Advocacy Forum, held poverty, illiteracy, social instability and negative attitude towards daughter responsible for the perpetration of child marriage.

Jolly said early marriages trigger bad impacts on society which include higher population growth, higher rates of maternal mortality and a higher number of orphans.

“Child marriage not only steals the innocence of a huge number of girls in the country but also often condemns girls to live a life of poverty and ignorance which is one of the biggest impediments to development,” she said.

According to Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 which was revised in 1984, there is provision of punishment with simple imprisonment which may extend to one month or with fine which may extend to one thousand taka for whoever performs, conducts or directs child marriage.

“When we get any case of early marriage, we take immediate steps”, said Ashraf Hossain, adding the Thana Nirbahee Officer and Upazila Nirbahee Officer also help to prevent child marriage.

He claimed that awareness has increased at the community level due to different programmes adopted by the concerned ministry.

“As social awareness has increased, incidents of child marriage have dropped”, Ashraf Hossain said.

Social security of women is a problem for mass people, he said and added that everybody should work together to address it.

However, he observed that it will take more time to significantly reduce the number of child marriage.

“Unless women are financially empowered and poverty is eradicated, we won't be able to liberate ourselves from this social vice”, the DG said.

Reasons have to be taken care of

Pankaj Karmakar

Momena, 17(left), cradles her cousin's baby, who is being caressed by Aleya, 16, in the district of Chapainawabgonj in Rajshahi. Momena is married, while Aleya is still in school. Momena and her parents regret her early marriage.

Despite mass campaign against child marriage over the last decades, Bangladesh is still bearing the brunt of child marriage in a large scale.

It is estimated that around 66 percent of total girl children are married off before the age of 18, according to different government and non-government agencies .

Traditional customs, patriarchal familial structure, people's mindset, poverty, illiteracy, culture of dowry and security concerns are the root causes for child marriage in Bangladesh, think activists.

Out of those, security concern and dowry are the key reasons for child marriage, according to child rights activists.

"Whenever a girl becomes victim of sexual harassment by offenders, the whole society becomes affected and the guardians become worried about their daughters' security," said Nasima Akhter Jolly, secretary of National Girl Child Advocacy Forum.

"Parents, therefore, want to get rid of the burden by marrying their daughters off. Early marriage is considered as the easiest way out to ensure protection of girls," said Jolly.

In a male dominated society like Bangladesh, a girl always has to remain alert against social stigma. A girl has to bear the stigma, even though she is harassed by miscreants. To escape such troubles, parents become eager to marry off their daughters as soon as they reach adolescence.

In Bangladesh, there is a proverb that Bangali girls become old when they become twenty. The proverb clearly reflects social compulsion and the mindset of people to marry girls off at early age.

People think that girls should be married off at their early age for their familial happiness, learning household chores and responsibilities and other reasons. A father thinks that it is the ultimate duty of his life to marry off his daughter. That is why, he wants to discharge his duty within the shortest possible time.

Due to patriarchal family culture, a teenager has a little opportunity to raise voice against any decision taken by guardians.

A father, who most of the time, is the sole decision maker in a family, often arranges marriage for the teenaged girl without consulting his daughter, even his wife. The head of the family thinks he always does the right things and intends to run the family in an autocratic manner.

On top of this, poverty is a major factor that triggers early marriage of girls who are often considered as an economic and social burden by their families.

"Parents arrange marriage of a young girl with an affluent older person, mostly around double the age of the girl, thinking that the girl will live in happiness with financial solvency," said Ranjan Karmaker, Executive Director of Step Towards Development, an NGO working for promoting gender equality.

Marriage of a young girl to an older man and into another family is often a family survival strategy in order to obtain financial security, he said.

Additionally, parents are attracted by the prospect of lower dowry payments if they marry their daughters off at an early age. The demand of dowry will increase in parallel with age. So, young girls must be married off as early as possible to escape the burden of huge amount of dowry, said Ranjan.

Due to pressure of dowry, poor families think that birth of a male child is a heavenly gift, while the birth of a girl child is still treated as a curse.

According to the government statistics, literacy rate in Bangladesh is around 56 percent. Most illiterate people do not know about the adverse consequences of early marriage.

If parents are illiterate, they do not want to make their daughter educated. They think female education as wastage of money. In a family, where a boy child has little opportunity for education, a girl child gets less opportunity to go to schools.

Being deprived from the light of education, the girl children are mostly confined within the four walls of the house, and grow up like a lifeless doll instead of a human being. They have neither the courage nor the ability to protest any decision imposed on them 'irrationally' by the family.

Another alarming message is that, the tendency of child marriage prevails in rich families also.

Parents of rich families, in many cases marry off their young daughters with old business tycoons to expand their business.

There was a recent incident in the country that a chairman of a Union Parishad (UP) married off his son to an under-18 girl and carried the bride to her father-in-law's house on a helicopter. The UP chairman spent around Tk 10 million in the marriage ceremony, according to news reports.

Marriage Registrars accused

* Marriage registrar imprisoned for registering early marriage: A marriage registrar was imprisoned by the mobile court for registering early marriage in Tarail of Kishoreganj on Sunday. (Report) Ittefaq, P.11; June 25, 2012

* Marriage registrar detained for registering early marriage in Gaibandha: A marriage register was detained by the crowd while registering early marriage in Monaharpur union of Palashbari upazila under Gaibandha district on Sunday. (Report) Janakantha, P.15; Jugantor, P.16; June 25, 2012.

* Our Patuakhali correspondent adds: In Barabaishdia union, Imam of a local mosque allegedly conducted most child marriage in Char Ganga village taking extra charge, villagers claimed.

But denying the charge the Imam said, he conducted six marriages in last week of May and first week of June and of that three cases were sent to Kazi office (office of the marriage registrar) as they showed birth registration card issued by local UP.

Maulana Md. Elias, marriage registrar of the UP also superintendent of Gabbunia Dakhil Madrasa told, "I don't registry any child marriage though I learnt Mahtab Uddin (the Imam) conducted child marriage in the area illegally identifying himself as my assistant.

Abu Hasnat Abdullah, chairman for Baranaishdia UP alleged that some marriage registrars (kazi) registered child marriage privately by receiving extra charge.

'Birth registration an effective tool to contain child marriage'

Tariq-ul-Islam, Secretary of the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs talks to The Daily Star


With the increase of birth registration, the number of child marriage is reducing, observed Tariq-ul-Islam, Secretary of Ministry of Women and Children Affairs.

The government does not have any record of how many girls under the age of 18 are being married off as there is no survey conducted on the issue.

“There is no survey and we've no data on decrease of child marriage but we believe early marriage is on the wane as the birth registration is being followed”, said Tariq-ul-Islam, in reply to a query about data on child marriage.

Pointing out that the birth registration is now being used everywhere as a testimony of age, Tariq-ul-Islam said argued that the rate of early marriage is relatively less now. "This tendency will continue", he stressed.

He blamed economic dependency, poverty, illiteracy and social insecurity as the main reasons for ongoing child marriage.

“If a girl's appearance is good, she often becomes victim of harassment and teasing. To avoid this, parents marry off their girls early”, he said, adding that parents, concerned over social security of their off-spring, are compelled to do so.

However, the local administration is active. The local administration and law enforcers take immediate steps and arrest culprits on information of stalking and harassment, the secretary said.

The government is currently carrying out different programmes like organizing rally, peer group meetings and forming clubs with girls and boys throughout the country to reduce child marriage.

There are about 400 Kishore-Kishori Clubs (adolescent clubs) formed in the country. All the unions of seven districts -- Thakurgaon, Sirajganj, Moulovibazar, Ranagamati, Chuadanga, Jhalakathi and Gopalganj -- of the seven different divisions are now under the programme, he said.

Each club consists of 30 people with 20 girls and 10 boys.

Tariq-ul-Islam said parents, boys and girls are the participants of the programme. They are taught about the bad effects of child marriage at the club discussion.

Boys are taught about the consequence of eve-teasing and harassment and to respect women, Tariq-ul-Islam said and added the girls are also educated on negative aspects of early marriage.

The government also conducted rallies and campaigns to raise awareness on the issue, he said.

Kazis (marriage registrars) often hide the age of girls during conduction of marriage. They do so illegally complying to the pressure of the parents or for monetary benefits.

When the secretary was asked about the matter, he pointed out some bureaucratic problems.

“It's a matter of Ministry of Law to ensure whether the Kazis are playing their role properly or not. If they (Kazis) were under our ministry we would conduct meeting to make them aware about child marriage”, Tariq-ul-Islam said.

He claimed that his ministry is working with the help of local administration to monitor and check early marriage at the grassroots level.

“Whenever such incident (child marriage) happens, TNO (Thana Nirbahee Officer) or UNO (Upazila Nirbahee Officer) take initiative to foil child marriage”, he claimed.

Tariq-ul-Islam felt that poverty reduction and economic emancipation of women will reduce child marriage in the country.

He also observed that the government alone cannot reduce child marriage.

“Everyone including government, non-government organizations and individuals should come together to stop child marriage”, he said.

'Administration-NGO joint approach essential to check child marriage'

Ranjan Karmakar, Executive Director of Steps Towards Development, and a prominent child marriage prevention activist, talks to The Daily Star


Collaboration between the local government and NGOs is very urgent to check child marriage in Bangladesh, feel experts.

"Local government, through its different components, can play an important role to prevent child marriage and the NGOs, which are working on this issue, can act as an auxiliary force to get rid of this social vice," said Ranjan Karmaker, executive director of Step Towards Development.

"Without collaborating with local government institutions, it is difficult to secure expected results from the programmes aimed to prevent child marriage," said Ranjan, who is working over the years to prevent child marriage.

He also urged the government for special budgetary allocation for local government institutions to run the programmes effectively.

Besides, Ranjan talked about different mechanisms to be implemented jointly by the government and non-government bodies.

Birth Registration Certificate (BRC) can be used as a major tool for preventing child marriage because the certificate can be a proof of age.

"Birth registration programme exists, but it needs to be more strengthened to ensure cent per cent coverage under this programme to prevent child marriage," he said.

He also stressed the need for making it mandatory to mention the birth registration and National ID card numbers in the marriage registration form so that age of the bride and bridegroom can be checked properly.

The government should also contain dropout rate of the female students at secondary level, because when an adolescent girl give up education, the parents and guardians become restless to marry the daughter off.

The society and administration will have to ensure security for girls on a top priority basis to rein in child marriage.

"Whenever a girl becomes victim of harassment, the whole society becomes affected. The guardians feel relaxed if they can marry their daughters off within the shortest possible time," he said.

He also stressed the need for massive campaigns against dowry because it is one of the major reasons for child marriage.

"Our social mindset supports such a theory that the amount of dowry will increase with the increase of a girl's age," said Ranjan.

Boys, especially in the rural area, treat girls as sex object, and many of them lack the tendency of treating their wives with dignity as a life partner. They do not think about future and the adverse effect of child marriage, he said.

So, awareness building among the masses is very essential to prevent child marriage. One should think that wife will not be a burden to him, rather she will be his support, he said.

Because of lack of education, girls do not become aware of their rights and become victim of different sorts of deprivation, he said, adding, "Educating girls should be the key focus."

About the government's role he said since the post-liberation period, different governments took different initiatives to combat child marriage. But in absence of continuation of those programmes, expected results cannot be achieved, he said.

Ranjan strongly recommended amending the existing laws to beef up penalty for child marriage.

Hindu Marriage Registration Act should also be enacted to contain this nuisance in Hindu community and girls should have rights on their paternal lands, he said.

Prejudice and attitude still matter most

Pankaj Karmakar

  Thirteen-year-old Tania, who is pregnant, carries a small jar outside her home in Barguna. She was married at age 10, an arrangement made by her parents when she was just one year old. Despite her pregnancy, she has many household tasks.

Jainal Abdein, an expatriate worker from Dubai, came home last May after six years to get married.

He along with family members has already met with several prospective brides, but failed to choose anyone as they thought all the girls were older than they expected and were lookxing for.

"We want a girl aged around 16 to 17 who has recently passed SSC (secondary school certificate) exam," said Jainal, aged around 32.

Asked about such a choice, Jainal, an inhabitant capital's Nawabpur Road, said, "They (teenaged girls) are innocent both in mind and outlook. The more a girl will become older, the more she will look bad and her mind will become complicated."

"I have learnt from my mother and aunts that my conjugal life will be happy, if I can marry a teenaged girl. The possibility of unhappiness is high if I marry an elderly girl," said Jainal.

Aked about the government's law that prohibited marriage of any girl aged under 18, he replied, "Brother, there are many laws in documents, but I will have to ensure my satisfaction and interest."

Jainal's case is not an isolated one. Rather, it is a common perception among thousands of males in Bangladesh.

"It's easy to dominate teenaged girls. This is the main reason for choosing a teenaged girl," said Nasima Akhter Jolly, secretary of National Child Rights Advocacy Forum.

Iqbal Ahmed, executive director of Padakkhep, an NGO, said, "The rate of child marriage is very high in remote areas and in the slums because the social attitude in these areas motivates people to go for early marriage."

Due to lack of awareness programme, the people of these regions remain in the dark about the adverse impact of child marriage, he said.

"Whenever a girl or a boy becomes adolescent and gets the sense of sexual feeling, some adolescents become eager. They think of it as a way of recreation and sexual ventillation," he said.

People of remote areas do not bother about government's law banning under-18 marriage, rather they think that such a law will make trouble in their lives.

Such people consider local administrative officials and NGO activists as their enemies and think that they are out to do them harm, said Iqbal.

According to a news report recently published in a national daily, whenever a journalist moved to foil a child marriage in Jessore, guardians of the bride told the journalist, "Why are you making such trouble? Can't you tolerate happiness of a girl of poor families?"

In most of the cases, guardians of both bride and bridegroom arrange marriage secretly to avoid such 'trouble' by journalists, rights workers and government officials.

In many cases, Kazis (marriage registrars) increase the age of brides through underhand dealings with guardians of bride in order to officially solemnise the marriage, according to many rights activists.

But the phenomenon of child marriage is also prevailing in affluent and educated families as well. Even, many educated young boys desire to marry teenaged girls for their mental and physical satisfaction.

"I desire to marry an adolescent girl because there is a possibility to get a virgin girl," said Rafiqul Islam, a forth semester student of a private university.

Such is the mindset of thousands of young men in this country.

"This mentality is a reflection of the social prejudices that treat girls as a sexual object," said Jolly.

Noted researcher and rights activists Dr. Meghna Guha Thakurata said due to lack of education, girls become dependent on their families and the society treats them as burden.

Whenever a girl becomes dependent, they cannot protest or stand against social judgements, Thakurata explained.

Early marriages foiled

Early marriages foiled: A teenaged girl was rescued from early marriage by UNO at Daktarpara village in Badarganj municipality of Rangpur district. (Report) Manabzamin, P.15; June 22, 2012

UNO restrained early marriage in Hatia: A girl of 12 years was rescued from early marriage by the help of UNO in Purba Laxmidia village of Char Ishar union of Hatia . (Report) Bhorer Kagoj, P.12; June 23, 2012

Early marriage foiled: Local administration foiled an early marriage in Peria Union of Nagalkot upazila under Comilla district on Thursday evening. (Report) Prothom Alo, P.19; June 23, 2012

Schoolgirl saved from early marriage in Raypura: A schoolgirl of Class 8 was saved from early marriage with the help of local administration in Boalmara village of Aulipura Union under Raypura upazila of Narsingdi district on Friday. (Report) Ittefaq, P.3; Bhorer Kagoj, P.2; June 24, 2012

Early marriage stopped in Madhabpur: Madhabpur upazila administration stopped an early marriage of a Class-5 student at Jaluabad village under Madhabpur upazila of Habiganj district on Thursday. (Report) Sangbad, P.12; June 24, 2012

Attempt to solemnise early marriage in Madhabpur: All the preparation have been done to solemnise an early marriage of a class-five student in Shahjahanpur union under Madhabpur upazila of Habiganj district. The marriage programme will be held on Friday. (Report) Jugantor, P.18; June 20, 2012

Class 7 girls gets rid of early marriage in Shathia: A class seven girl, Rumi, was saved from early marriage by Shathia upazila branch of Bangladesh Human Rights Implementation Organization on Friday in Ghughudoh village of Shathia upazila under Pabna district. (Report) Amar Desh, P.11; June 17, 2012

Teenage girl escapes early marriage in Kanaighat: Early marriage of a 13 years old girl student was foiled by police in remote hilly Mikirpara village of Lakhsmiprasad East union in Kanaighat upazila under Sylhet district. (Report) Bhorer Kagoj, P.5; June 17

4 early marriages arranged in Dhamrai and Badarganj: Three early marriages in Naogahati village of Sutipara union in Dhamari and one in Badarganj of Rangpur district have been arranged to be held. (Report) Jugantor, P.17; June 15, 2012

Early marriage foiled in Magura: Local government and local women's federation foiled an early marriage of a class ten student in Aruakandi village of Maghi Union under Sadar upazila of Magura district. (Report) Samakal, P.9; June 16, 2012

Early marriage foiled in Ulipur: An early marriage of a class three student was foiled with the initiative of local government and NGO members in Hijli Akandpara village of Hatia union under Ulipur upazila of Kurigram district. (Report) Bhorer Kagoj, P.12; June 16, 2012

Child marriage thwarted at Alamdanga: Police stopped two early marriages in two separate villages under Alamdanga upazila in the Kushtia district. (Report) Financial Express, P.13; Bangladesh Today, P.2; June 17, 2012


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