According to UNICEF, Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, ranking fourth after Niger, the Central African Republic and Chad.
The rate of child marriages stands at 59 per cent, meaning 59 per cent of girls under the age of 18 are married off, often against their will. Alarmingly still, 22 per cent of girls under 15 are being forced into child marriages.
The government is working tirelessly to bring these numbers down, but is facing many hurdles along the way. Child marriage pertains to Sustainable development Goal 5 which aims to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
Under goal 5 of the SDGs, NPI (national priority indicator) 14 aims to reduce the proportion of women aged 20-24 years who were married before age 15 to zero. NPI 15 aims to reduce the proportion of women aged 20-24 years who were married before age 18 to 10 per cent.
Despite achieving remarkable success in the sector of women and children’s health, we are struggling to reduce the rate of child marriages in the country.
Societal perceptions must be changed through
widespread campaigning and systemic information
dissemination on the risks associated with early
marriage and pregnancy
Child marriage is associated with many detrimental effects, including health dangers associated with early pregnancy, lower likelihood of educational achievement for girls who marry earlier, higher rates of spousal violence, as well as an increased likelihood of poverty.
Ending early marriage would have far reaching consequences in other developmental indicators as well. It would particularly reduce the maternal mortality rate as well as the infant mortality rate as well. Research has shown that worldwide, girls aged 10-14 are five times more likely to die during delivery than mothers aged 20-24; girls aged 15-19 are still two times more likely to die during delivery than women aged 20-24.
It is clear that preventing early marriages would be tremendously positive both in terms of health and socioeconomic wellbeing of the girls and women. Therefore, we must pledge our resources to eradicating early marriage from our nation.
In order to achieve success in doing so, we must examine the factors that drive parents to marry their female children at a young age. One of the most common causes of early marriage in the country is poverty.
Female children are often considered to be an economic burden by their families. Often, families are not able to feed the children, let alone pay for their education. Therefore, parents choose to marry young girls to men who are much older in order to attain financial security.
Though primary and secondary education is financed by the state and free of charge in public schools, many parents are unable to bear the associated costs of education. These costs include exams, uniforms, stationery, etc. and often are too much for families living below the poverty line.
Other social factors also exacerbate the problem. The widespread practice of paying dowry makes many parents marry off their daughters at a very young age as lower dowries are expected for younger girls.
There is also communal pressure on the parents to marry off their daughters as soon as possible. Families and communities fear for the safety of young girls and consider it best to force them into marriages as a way of ensuring their safety against sexual harassment.
The practice of early marriage is deeply rooted in several socio-economic factors and in order to overcome this challenge, the government must implement structured strategies. In the past, the Female Stipend Programme Gender Equality in Bangladesh (FSP) had achieved success in delaying marriage as well as motherhood.
Launched in 1994, the programme allowed for stipends to girls aged 11 to 14 in secondary education providing they had 75 per cent attendance and a 45 per cent score in end-of-year tests as well as providing they remain unmarried until sitting the Secondary School Certificate or reaching the age of 18.
According to a World Bank report the proportion of married girls between 13 and 15 years of age dropped from 29 per cent to 14 per cent, whilst for those aged from 16 to 19 the proportion dropped from 72 per cent to 65 per cent.
The government should look to reinstate the programme both in rural regions, as well as in urban areas. The scope of the programme can be expanded gradually and look to cover costs of education for young girls all over the country.
Other than strategic intervention, awareness is highly needed at the community level to bring down rates of early marriage and pregnancy.
Societal perceptions must be changed through widespread campaigning and systemic information dissemination on the risks associated with early marriage and pregnancy.
Delaying early marriage would result in more girls with higher levels of education. In turn, more women would enter the work force in the coming years, ensuring high levels of economic growth for the country.
Synthia Kainath Nur is working with Bangladesh Post