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Helping to prevent child marriage in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is one of three countries in the world where more than a third of young women (aged 20-24) are married by the age of 15. The legal age for marriage is 18, but many families continue to flout the law.

Poverty is one driving factor. Girls are seen as an economic burden, unable to bring income to the household. Fathers are also expected to pay a dowry to any future husband of their daughter. For a poor family, this payment can be a huge burden. But if a girl is given in marriage at a young age, the dowry is usually much less.

There is widespread ignorance about the health risks faced by girls when they marry at a young age. Young girls face a much higher likelihood of complications during childbirth. This is one reason why maternal mortality rates are so high in Bangladesh, with nearly 350 women dying for every 100,000 live births (World Health Organization 2008). The psychological effects can also be huge. Girls are often traumatised by having their childhood years and education taken away. And they often find themselves in a position of powerlessness within the household of their new family. This makes them more vulnerable to abuse and being expected to shoulder an excessive amount of domestic work. Since it is common for child brides not to have access to friends or family, there is often no one they can turn to for support.

In a ‘Crossing Continents’ programme to be aired on Radio 4 this week, the BBC’s Angus Crawford explores the potential consequences of child marriage. The reporter meets one young girl, who might only be 12 (she won’t say), who was abandoned by her husband’s family after losing a baby and suffering serious internal injuries which left her incontinent. The girl is interviewed at a hospital in Dhaka and asks the BBC team if they will “pray that I get better”. Another young girl is due to be married by her family at 13. Local government officials and a representative from a non-governmental organisation (NGO) remind her family of the law, leading the girl’s mother to change her mind and call off the wedding.

But to reduce the incidents of child marriage significantly, there also has to be a change of culture among men in Bangladesh. The most heartening story uncovered by the BBC concerns a young boy called Oli Ahmed. At just 12 years of age, Oli has become a campaigner against child marriage in the slum region of Dhaka where he lives. A friend whom Oli describes as “like an older sister to me” was married off young, after which Oli never saw her again. Now he and a group of other youngsters visit the parents of any girl they know who is facing the same situation. By badgering, scolding and persuading the parents to think again, the youngsters aim to stop any child marriages in their district. One NGO worker told the BBC that since the youngsters had begun their campaign, the number of child marriages in the area had dropped by half. Oli is extremely proud of his work, saying “I feel very good that a girl’s life has been saved.” Bangladesh now needs more men and boys like Oli.
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