Bangladesh has been cited as a development success story, including in the area of women’s rights. For instance, gender parity has been achieved in primary and secondary school enrollment. Despite Bangladesh’s success in achieving some sustainable development goals, the country’s high rate of child marriage has become a matter of great concern and turned into one the major socioeconomic problems. Currently, according to a UNICEF report, 52% of girls are married by their 18th birthday and 18% by the age of 15. The report identifies that child marriage happens more in village and poor families than city and rich families. A statistics shows that 80 percent poor families are involved in child marriage while the rate is 53 percent among rich. In the similar fashion, ratio of child marriage between village and city in the country is 70:53 (the Prothom Alo, September 13, 2014). It is a matter of hope that governments, whether Awami league or BNP, are committed to stop child marriage from the country. In a recent summit, held in London in 2014, the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, reaffirmed her intention to end child marriage among under-15s by 2021 and reduce by more than one-third the number of girls married between the ages of 15 and 18. The country has set 2041 as the target date to eliminate the practice.
Researchers have identified number of factors that contribute to child marriage. A section of people use religion as a tool to validate the early marriage of their daughters while social security is another concern. In a joint piece, Jimmy Carter, President of the United States (1977-1981) and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, President of Brazil (1995-2003) argue that poverty is a major driver of child marriage because marrying off a daughter relieves a family of an extra mouth to feed in many poor countries and communities. The survey entitled “Women’s Life Choices and Attitudes Survey” (WiLCAS) conducted by M Niaz Asadullah, Professor of Development Economics at the University of Malaya (UM) and Zaki Wahhaj of the University of Kent, in 2014, revealed that about 83% of the married women in their survey had their marriages arranged by their parents or other relatives; 38% were married by the age of 15, and 77% by the age of 18. In response to the question ‘what was the most important reason for the marriage?’, only 3% mentioned ‘parental concern about my physical safety’. By contrast, 72% answered that their ‘parents felt it was too good a proposal to refuse’. The 134-page report, “Marry Before Your House is Swept Away: Child Marriage in Bangladesh,” documents the factors driving child marriage in Bangladesh – including poverty, natural disasters, lack of access to education, social pressure, harassment, and dowry. There are also instances, though limited, where parents are not responsible for child marriage rather
Empowering women is considered as an approach to end child marriage. On 10th November 2016, in a consultation meeting on ‘Evidence Based Strategies for Ending Child Marriage: Why Empowerment Matters’ at the BRAC Centre Inn, Dhaka, the experts called for a multidimensional, longer?term and holistic approach to programs which take into account dimensions such as realized rights, health and access to education. They called for reconsidering approaches that exclusively rely on a cost?benefit framework using single?focus indicators without taking into account the intrinsic value of adolescent agency choice and voice. In order to effectively reduce child marriage in Bangladesh, girls must be seen as an asset, not a liability and new approaches that empower girls must be employed and girls must be engaged in their families and their communities. The Guardian reports that Child marriage in Bangladesh could drop by up to one-third if girls receive educational support or skills training, according to a study looking at ways to combat the practice in a country with one of the highest prevalence rates. (https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/ apr/05/bangladesh-educating-girls-cut-child-marriage-by-a-third-study-pilot)
In his paper entitled “Theory of Change: Why empowerment is important matters for preventing child marriage”, Prof. Asadullah (UM), emphasized financial incentive-based interventions to child marriage, highlighting that a quick fix solution cannot be sought by merging the problem into one of poverty and finance. The presentation focused on how social customs instead of financial constraints govern marriage decisions in rural Bangladesh. Dr. Shahnaz Huda, Department of Law, University of Dhaka, called for the need to amend laws such as the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, and for sustainable interventions to include door to door services to address child marriage. Dr.Sayema Bidisha, Associate Professor of Economics, University of Dhaka, spoke about cash transfer programs, highlighting the fact that these programs have been designed only focus on short term objectives. So, these are not helpful to achieve the longer term objective such as empowering women to increase their participation in the labour force.
President Carter and President Cardoso recognize that change will not be easy as child marrs a deeply embedded tradition in many societies – all too often sanctioned by religious leaders. They suspect that child marriage is in decline in some parts of the world at such a slow rate that it will take hundreds of years to disappear. They actively seek wider engagement with religious leaders on this issue because no religions, according to them, explicitly promote child marriage. The fact that religious leaders condone and sanction it in many societies owes more to custom and tradition than doctrine. They said, “We cannot allow the distortion of faith or long-standing custom to be used as an excuse to ignore the rights of girls and women, and to hold their communities in poverty.” So, religions should not be seen as the barrier to end child marriage. Child marriage is seen as one of the health damaging behavior. Yemen provides a strong case on how faith leaders are promoting elimination of health damaging behaviors, including a study on child marriage and the reduction of its prevalence.
Finally, it is high time to recognize that we cannot improve the lives of the poorest and most marginalized women and girls until the impact of child marriage is addressed directly and openly – and unless we make a commitment to ending it. It is therefore needed to launch grassroots campaigns and create new economic opportunities for women. The last but not least, wider engagement of religious leaders is imperative to end child marriage.
The writer is a PhD candidate in Economics at the International Islamic University Malaysia. He holds B.S.S. and M.S.S. degrees in Economics from University of Dhaka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.