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Rural girls remain targets for child brides

Rural child marriage a problem in Bangladesh

Bangladesh has one of the world’s highest rates of child marriage (Photo: Chandan Robert Rebeiro) Bangladesh has one of the world’s highest rates of child marriage (Photo: Chandan Robert Rebeiro)
  • ucanews.com reporter, Dhaka
  • Bangladesh
  • June 28, 2012
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For many years, child marriage was an accepted fact of life and a mainstay of the social structure in impoverished, rural parts of  Bangladesh. Inevitably, along with countless stories of human suffering,  it has brought with it poor levels of education among females and an alarmingly high number of mortalities in childbirth.

“I’ve seen many very young mothers come here to give birth,” says a gynecologist at Dhaka Medical College and Hospital. “Often they face extensive bleeding, resulting in the death of the mother or the child, sometimes both of them. The children born of premature mothers have a slow growth rate and the mothers suffer from anemia.”

Over the last decade, the government and agencies such as UNICEF have waged war on the practice, demanding stricter enforcement of an existing law – passed as long ago as 1929 - that makes child marriage a criminal offense.

More positively, since the 1990s, the government has been offering grants to pay for girls’ education up to higher secondary level.

Despite these efforts, recurring reports from the media and international agencies claim that child marriage is still very much a reality.

According to Plan International, an agency that works for children’s rights, Bangladesh still has one of the highest rates in the world, with 20 percent of females becoming brides before their 15th birthday. UNICEF estimates that about 66 percent of the country’s adult women were married before they were 18.

In most cases, parents say they know it is illegal but they are forced to do it because of poverty and worries over their daughters’ future security.

There is also the concept that rural girls are considered a burden in many families because they rarely bring in a regular income.

“I couldn’t continue my studies after grade two and used to work at home, taking care of my brothers and sisters. Then suddenly, my marriage was fixed and I had to accept the family decision,” says one woman who married at 13.

In recent years, an even more sinister factor has emerged: as stalking and rape cases have risen rapidly, especially in rural areas where the rule of law is lax, parents have become anxious to get their daughter married early to save ‘family honor.’

“My daughter was beautiful and she had to face stalking from local delinquents on her way to school. So we gave her away in marriage,” says Amena Begum. Her daughter was one of a group of 11 girls aged 12 to 14 who were married last month in a remote village in the southwestern Patuakhali district.

Nahid Sultana, program officer at the Women and Children Affairs Ministry, describes child marriage as “a clear violation of children’s rights,” and insists that the government is working hard to eradicate it.

“We conduct formal meetings and run youth groups in various districts regularly,” she says. We teach parents and children how to live without the dowry system and combat stalking. And on any issue regarding child marriage, we offer legal support.”

But Juliet Lipika Sarkar, a worker with Caritas, warns that tradition will provide the sternest challenge to the reformers. “Child marriage is a social custom among rural people and some of them want to continue it as a part of their culture,” she says. “It will take time to completely uproot it.”

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