The legal minimum age is 18 (21 for boys), after the Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Ordinance was introduced in 1984. But the number of child brides remains high, with many teenage girls being forced into an early marriage out of deference for the wishes of their parents.
In more isolated rural communities, there has been little a girl could do when faced with the prospect of an early marriage. In northern districts especially, attitudes remain deeply conservative; poor families view early marriage as a good way to protect the honour of their daughters. The dowry system also encourages the practice of child brides, because the younger the girl, the less parents have to pay to the groom’s family.
But as girls begin to appreciate the importance of an education, they often desire to remain at school. And it is now more widely understood that early marriages keep women in a cycle of poverty. Organisations promoting women’s rights and education, are therefore working hard to stop the practice of child brides in Bangladesh, including stepping up their campaigns to lobby local government officials and ensure that marriage registrars demand proof of a girls’ age before allowing a ceremony to take place.
Young people themselves are also being co-opted into the fight. In an article on this issue, The Guardian highlights the groups of youngsters active in Nilphamari, in the north of Bangladesh. In this district, when children are threatened with an early marriage, secondary school pupils go to speak with the family. There are over ten groups of around 20 youngsters active in this way and they’re known as the ‘wedding busters’.
When talking with parents, they explain about the evils of child marriage, including the health risks. According to the UN’s child agency, UNICEF, girls who become pregnant before the age of 16 are three to four times more likely to die from complications during childbirth, than women in their twenties. The youngsters also talk about the greater likelihood of girls being able to help support their families financially when they have been completed their education.
If they’re unable to persuade parents, the ‘wedding busters’ call in help from support organisations. But in Nilphamari, the youngsters manage to stop around half of all proposed child marriages. After receiving a visit from one of these groups, one tearful mother recalls her own early marriage and vows to speak to her husband, telling the youngsters “you’re right...[my daughter] should study and have a better life than I did”.