Two-thirds of women are married before the age of 18, with over a quarter in unions before the age of 15. Speaking to IRIN, a manager at the Family Planning Association of Bangladesh admitted “early marriage is a big problem”.
According to the United Nations, the average age for a Bangladeshi woman having her first child is just 16 years. Younger girls face a higher risk of complications during birth and experts are concerned that the country will be unable to reduce deaths among women, unless the culture of early marriage can be changed. Maternal mortality rates remain high, with nearly 350 women dying for every 100,000 live births in 2008.
Dulali Begum was one such case. Married at 14 because of financial hardship in her family, the teenager died shortly afterwards during pregnancy. Dulali’s father told IRIN’s reporter “I am responsible for my daughter’s death. If I had not married off my daughter at 14, she would not have died.” Now whenever he is able, he tells others in his community not to make the same mistake.
The government of Bangladesh offers an incentive for marriage to be postponed by providing secondary school scholarships to girls who remain in school. A number of agencies and non-governmental organisations are also actively working on this issue in Bangladesh. The International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) funds a programme called ‘Girls Decide’, which sends workers to visit schools and talk about under-age marriage and sexual health issues. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) also sponsors over 2,500 adolescent centres across 28 districts. At these centres, adolescent leaders are trained to educate their peers about child rights and speak to them about issues such as dowries.
When daughters are married off at an early age, this reduces the amount families have to pay in a dowry. Fears about the sexual harassment of girls also play a part in persuading parents to marry their daughters earlier rather than later. According to the 1929 Child Marriage Restraint Act, it is illegal for parents to marry children under 18. However, authorities rarely intervene, unless the child is especially young; in March, police halted the wedding of a 10-year old girl in the Manikgani District, northwest of Dhaka. Now agencies are calling for the government to make more effort in enforcing the law. They would also like to see a much wider public awareness campaign. As one worker put it, only when society understands “the negative side of child marriage....can we stop it.”