Marry Before Your House is Swept Away Child Marriage in Bangladesh

This is a place affected by river erosion,” Azima B.’s parents told her, explaining why she had to marry at age 13. “If the river takes our house it will be hard for you to get married so it’s better if you get married now.”
Azima said that people in the community had been “shaming her” for still being unmarried because she is tall and looks old for her age. “I protested a lot to my parents but they said, ‘It is a shame for us to keep you in the house.’ I wanted to continue my education, but my mother said, ‘Your father has fixed your marriage and if you don’t listen to your father, people will say what kind of girl is that who doesn’t listen to her father?’”
Azima said, “I am the oldest and only after I get married can [my sisters] think about getting married. If the river takes the house it will be hard for them to get married.” Azima’s sisters are ages 12, 10, and 8 years old; her parents are now considering a marriage for the 12-year-old.
Azima married a 17-year-old boy three days after his parents decided she was an acceptable bride.
“They’ve already asked me to have children,” Azima, now age 14, said of her in-laws. “I live in their house—I have to keep them happy. My husband has also asked me to have children. I said I wanted to wait for two years, but they said, ‘No, you should have children now.’ So I guess I will have to have children now.”
Bangladesh has the fourth-highest rate of child marriage in the world after Niger, the Central African Republic, and Chad, according to the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF. In the period 2005 to 2013, according to UNICEF, 29 percent of girls in Bangladesh married before the age of 15 and 65 percent married before the age of 18. Child marriage around the world is associated with many harmful consequences, including health dangers associated with early pregnancy, lower educational achievement for girls who marry earlier, a higher incidence of spousal violence, and an increased likelihood of poverty.
Research shows that globally girls aged 10-14 are five times more likely to die during delivery than mothers aged 20-24; girls aged 15-19 are still twice as likely to die during delivery than women aged 20-24. The link between lack of or poor education and child marriage is borne out by research finding that in Bangladesh women with primary, secondary, and higher education, compared to women with no formal education, were respectively 24 percent, 72 percent, and 94 percent less likely to marry at a young age. A study across 7 countries found that girls who married before the age of 15 were more likely to experience spousal abuse than women who married after the age of 25. Global data shows that girls from the poorest 20 percent of families are twice as likely to marry before 18 as girls whose families are among the richest 20 percent.
In other respects, Bangladesh has been cited as a development success story, including in the area of women’s rights. The UN cited Bangladesh’s “impressive” poverty reduction from 56.7 percent in 1991-1992 to 31.5 percent in 2010. Bangladesh has achieved gender parity in primary and secondary school enrollment, according to the UN. Maternal mortality declined by 40 percent between 2001 and 2010.
Bangladesh’s success in achieving some development goals begs the question why the country’s rate of child marriage remains so high. This report aims to help answer that question and suggest ways in which Bangladesh’s government can apply effective strategies to achieve comparable success in reducing child marriage.
In Bangladesh there are several factors driving the high rate of child marriage. Gender discrimination feeds social attitudes and customs that harm girls at every stage of their lives and fuel the country’s extremely high rate of child marriage. Desperate poverty remains a daily reality for many families in Bangladesh, and many parents see child marriage as their best option to safeguard the future of a daughter they feel they can neither feed nor educate nor protect. Bangladesh’s status as one of the countries in the world most affected by natural disasters and climate change adds an additional element of hardship to many families, especially those living in the most marginal and disaster-affected parts of the country.
Bangladesh’s government has responded to the growing attention to the harms linked to child marriage by promising swift action. At the July 2014 Girl Summit in London, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pledged to take steps to reduce child marriage in Bangladesh and to ultimately end it by 2041. She committed, by 2021, to end marriage for girls under 15 and reduce by more than one-third the number of girls between the ages of 15 and 18 who marry. As part of this effort, she pledged that her government would revise Bangladesh’s law which prohibits child marriage, the Child Marriage Restraint Act (CMRA), before 2015, develop a national plan of action on child marriage by the end of 2014, and take other steps to change social norms and engage civil society in the fight against child marriage.
Sheikh Hasina’s efforts to follow through on the commitments she made at the Girl Summit have already been marred by delay. One reason for this was a debacle over a proposal to revise the CMRA by changing the age of marriage in Bangladesh to 16 years old for girls and 18 years old for boys. This proposal was vigorously opposed by civil society activists in Bangladesh, as well as international experts. At the time of writing, the government still appears to be pushing forward with this proposal, while the process of reforming the law has been delayed. The development of a national plan of action on ending child marriage has also been delayed and is not complete at the time of writing.
This report aims to support the commitments Bangladesh’s government has made to ending child marriage by documenting the experiences and insights of child brides and their family members. Human Rights Watch interviewed 114 people for the report in late 2014. The majority of those interviewed were girls and women who experienced child marriage first-hand. Their experiences highlight some successes in reducing child marriage in Bangladesh, but also many areas where the Bangladesh government can and should do more.
The legal age of marriage in Bangladesh is currently 18 for women and 21 for men. Bangladesh’s Child Marriage Restraint Act (CMRA), first passed in 1929 and subsequently amended several times, makes it a criminal offense to marry or facilitate the marriage of a girl under 18 or a man or boy under 21, but the law has rarely been enforced and is widely ignored.
When asked about how they had made decisions about when their daughters should marry, families interviewed for this report talked again and again about poverty. Girls described parents deciding to marry them off simply because the family was going hungry. Many families also linked poverty, education, and child marriage, saying that they arranged a marriage for their daughter because they were too poor to keep her in school. Many of the families interviewed are so poor that even the smallest expense associated with school, for example, exam fees which may be as little as US$0.13, is unaffordable. Social norms and gender discrimination lead parents to view their sons as future economic providers and their daughters as burdens who eventually leave for their marital home—meaning that families are more likely to pull their daughters from school first when money is short. Poverty also prevents boys from attending school. Schools do little to retain students, prevent child marriages, or educate students about sexual and reproductive rights and the fact that child marriage is illegal and harmful.
One of the major factors pushing these families into such desperate poverty is natural disasters. Bangladesh’s extreme vulnerability to natural disasters, exacerbated by climate change and combined with its large population, means that for many poor families their livelihoods, homes, and land are under threat from flooding, river erosion, cyclones, and other disasters.
Some families interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they had made decisions about marriage for reasons directly related to natural disasters—some, for example, rushed to marry off a daughter in anticipation of losing their home to river erosion. Other families described natural disasters as a recurring stress factor, taking food from the family’s mouth and making child marriage seem like the best option for a girl and the family.
Harassment and intimidation also played a major role in driving child marriage. Unmarried adolescent girls often face unwanted advances and threats, including the threat of abduction from suitors, and parents, feeling unable to protect their daughters and with no prospect of help from police or local authorities, see marriage as a solution. Families are also influenced by social pressures from neighbors in communities where the onset of puberty in a girl is seen as a signal that it is time for her to marry. The widespread practice of girls’ families paying dowry to her groom creates additional pressure, as dowry tends to be lower and even avoidable for the youngest of brides. Boys are also the victims of child marriage in Bangladesh, though it is estimated that the rate of child marriage is 11 times higher for girls than boys.
“My life is destroyed” is how one girl described the effect child marriage had on her. Human Rights Watch interviews with married girls in Bangladesh found they almost always left education permanently. They became pregnant early, either because they were pressured to or felt that they should, or because they had no access to contraception and information about family planning. Even if they left their husbands or got divorced early, economic and social pressures often kept them from resuming their studies. Some suffered health problems as a result of early pregnancy, and many suffered violence and abuse in their home. Some of the most heartbreaking stories were from girls who had been abandoned or cast out by abusive husbands and in-laws, yet were begging to be taken back, for lack of other options.
The efforts and promises of Bangladesh’s government to end child marriage have not translated into adequate action. Reforms like the government’s expansion of birth registration are important because, if implemented effectively, they could play a key role in ending child marriage by allowing accurate verification of a person’s age to determine if they are old enough to legally marry. However, Human Rights Watch’s research shows that local officials routinely take bribes to provide false birth certificates in order to facilitate child marriages. The government has taken important strides in facilitating access to education by banning primary level school fees. However, other costs associated with attending school mean that education remains out of reach for too many children, and for girls the consequence of lack of access to education can be child marriage. Government agencies providing assistance to families in poverty or affected by disasters should be more directly involved in preventing child marriage. Bangladesh’s law on child marriage should be reformed, but even more importantly, it should be fully enforced.
International law prohibiting gender discrimination requires that the age of marriage be the same for both women and men, and evolving international standards set 18 as the minimum age. Setting a higher age of marriage for men, even when the minimum age of marriage for women is 18, is a harmful form of gender discrimination which reinforces social norms about older men marrying younger girls. International law also provides every individual the right to freely choose whether and whom to marry and to defer marriage until she or he has reached sufficient age to be capable of free and full consent. Bangladesh’s obligations under international law also compel it to protect its peoples’ rights to education and health and to be free from physical, mental, and sexual violence.
In many of the villages Human Rights Watch visited in the course of researching this report, child marriage is not only socially acceptable but also expected. As long as the government looks the other way, or even facilitates child marriage, for example, when local government officials provide forged birth certificates, marrying off young daughters will be a survival strategy for parents who feel unable to care for their children or fear the consequences of strong social stigma against unmarried girls. The stories in this report explain the hard choices families face, and the ways in which the government is failing to prevent child marriage.
The Bangladesh government’s high-level political commitment to end child marriage is a positive step. But it will not achieve its targets unless child marriage becomes a permanent priority for all parts of the government and is backed up by effective legislation, policies, and programs.
Key Recommendations
To the Government of Bangladesh
Comprehensively reform the Child Marriage Restraint Act (CMRA) by the end of 2015. Reform of the CMRA should include:
Setting the minimum age of marriage at 18 for men and women with no exceptions;
Expanding measures to prevent child marriage;
Providing assistance to married children and adults who married as children.
As per the prime minister’s commitment at the July 2014 London Girl Summit, produce a national plan of action to end child marriage by 2041, and fully incorporate this plan of action into the government’s seventh 5 year plan for fiscal years 2016 through 2020. Ensure that the plan is adequately resourced.
Make marriage registration compulsory for all religions. Create digital records that are accessible throughout the country as proof of marriage.
Initiate a nationwide awareness campaign against child marriage in a variety of media and in formats accessible to those with disabilities and limited literacy, emphasizing the health risks of early pregnancy, the benefits of girls’ education, the law prohibiting child marriage, the consequences for those who break the law, and the mechanism for reporting child marriage and obtaining assistance.
Eliminate all costs to students and parents for textbooks, education materials, exams, and uniforms for all children in compulsory education, and take steps to alleviate the negative effects of other indirect costs on children from poorer households.
Coordinate with schools to monitor problems of harassment of female students and intervene to prevent and end harassment, including by contacting law enforcement authorities in cases involving alleged criminal acts.
Incorporate a detailed module on sexual and reproductive health into the national curriculum as an examinable, independent subject and ensure that it is taught in all schools.
Investigate all complaints of child marriage promptly, intervene to prevent child marriage whenever possible, and refer for prosecution anyone who has committed a crime under the CMRA, including officials who solemnize child marriages and those who provide forged birth certificates to facilitate child marriages. Establish a mechanism to receive and investigate reports of local government officials providing forged birth certificates. Dismiss and refer for prosecution any officials found to have forged birth certificates.
To International Donors and the United Nations
Encourage the Bangladesh government to pass a reformed CMRA in 2015 which complies with international law and best practices and sets the minimum age of marriage at 18 years for both women and men with no exceptions.
Encourage the Bangladesh government to develop a comprehensive national strategy to end child marriage through a broad consultative process, participate in its development, and support its implementation. Integrate strategies to prevent child, early, and forced marriage and to support married girls into assistance programs.
This report is primarily based on research conducted in Bangladesh in September, October, and November 2014. A Human Rights Watch researcher carried out a total of 114 individual and group interviews, including 59 interviews with girls and young women who had married before the age of 18 in the last 5 years.
Interviews with girls and young women affected by child marriage, family members, and local officials were conducted in the districts of Noakhali, Laxmipur, Khulna, Sirajganj, and Gaibandha. Child marriage is a problem across all regions of Bangladesh, in both rural and urban areas. We chose to conduct research in districts across four different regions of the country in an effort to capture regional variations in the causes and consequences of child marriage. We also selected these districts in part because they all contain extensive areas where there is significant impact from natural disasters, including cyclones, river erosion, and flooding. One of the goals of this research was to determine whether there were specific vulnerabilities to child marriage in areas affected by natural disasters. The majority of, but not all, interviewees lived or had lived in areas significantly affected by natural disasters.
The most recently married girl we interviewed was a 15-year-old who had married 3 days prior to the interview. The youngest married girl we interviewed was 10 years old. The researcher also interviewed fathers and mothers, most of whom were parents of child brides, but a few of whom were individuals who had resisted community norms and chosen to delay their daughters’ marriages.
Because most of these interviews were conducted in homes in villages, the researcher, in addition to hearing peoples’ stories, also often got a firsthand look at the living conditions in which interviewees lived. These often consisted of large extended families living in one or two room shacks. Virtually all homes had mud floors and some were built entirely from bamboo, leaves, and tarpaulins.
The interviews were conducted in Bangla through a female interpreter. All interviewees were advised of the purpose of the research and that the information they shared would be used for the purpose of this report. They were advised of the voluntary nature of the interview and that they could refuse to be interviewed, refuse to answer any question, and terminate the interview at any point. The majority of interviews were recorded, with the interviewees’ consent, for later reference; all interviewees could refuse having the interview recorded.
Most interviews were conducted with only the interviewee, translator, and Human Rights Watch researcher present, but in some cases the interviewee requested that another person be present. A few interviews were conducted with family groups. Interviewees were only asked about abuse within their marriage, including sexual violence, when the interview was taking place in private. All interviewees were already connected with local NGO representatives who have some capacity to assist with obtaining legal and medical services where needed.
Twenty-four interviews with local officials, teachers, NGO workers, and representatives of international organizations provided context and information about the policy and legal framework relevant to child marriage in Bangladesh. Interviews with national and international NGOs and international organizations were conducted in Dhaka.
Human Rights Watch shared our findings with the government of Bangladesh and requested a response from the government within about three weeks through a letter sent by email, fax, and courier service on February 18, 2015. The letter was copied to the government institutions which are the focus of recommendations of this report; a copy is included in this report as an appendix. At the time of publication, Human Rights Watch had not received any response to the letter.
All interviewees’ names have been changed to pseudonyms or withheld to protect their privacy.
The exchange rate at the time of the research was US$1 = 77 Bangladesh taka; this rate has been used for conversions in the text, which have generally been rounded to the nearest dollar.
I. How Girls Become Brides:
Contributing Factors to Child Marriage
“River erosion took our house, so we came here,” Beauty A. said. “We didn’t know anyone so we were vulnerable so my husband was able to threaten us. He told my father, ‘I will marry your daughter or I will burn your house down.’ My father had refused to give me to him because he already had a wife, but then he threatened us.”
Beauty’s father eventually agreed to the marriage and Beauty married. She is not sure what her age was when she married, but she believes she is about 40 now, and her oldest child, a son, is 25. She and her husband had three children before he abandoned the family and returned to his first wife. Beauty struggled to feed her children on her own, in part because of flooding. “When it rains everything gets destroyed—a lot of agriculture gets destroyed. If the crops are destroyed, there is no work for us.” For the last two years, she said, the situation has been much worse because a new embankment built two years ago by the government blocks the water from receding and has increased the flooding and resulting crop destruction.
Beauty took her two daughters out of school after class five and class three because even though the school was free, she could not afford stationery, pens, and uniforms. She arranged marriages for both daughters when they reached age 15. “I know the right age to get married is 18,” she said in relation to her younger daughter who had married three months earlier. “But I don’t have enough money to feed her.”[1] Bangladesh has the fourth-highest rate of child marriage in the world, after Niger, the Central African Republic, and Chad, according to the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF.[2] About 74 percent of Bangladeshi women currently aged 20 to 49 were married or in a union before age 18, despite a minimum legal marriage age for women of 18.[3] In the period 2005 to 2013, according to UNICEF, 65 percent of girls in Bangladesh married before age 18, and 29 percent married before age 15.[4] UNICEF data indicates that the rate of marriage among girls under the age of 15 in Bangladesh is the highest in the world.[5] In absolute numbers, Bangladesh is the country in the world with the second-highest total number of women aged 20 to 24 years old who were married or in a union before age 15, after India.[6] Two percent of girls in Bangladesh are married before age eleven.[7]Boys are also the victims of child marriage in Bangladesh, though it is estimated that the rate of child marriage is 11 times higher for girls than boys.[8] While the rate of child marriage in Bangladesh is high across all parts of the country and all demographic groups, research shows that some girls are at higher risk than others. A heightened incidence of child marriage is associated with living in rural areas, receiving less education, and poverty. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) found in 2007 that 70 percent of girls living in rural areas in Bangladesh are married before age 18, compared to 53 percent of girls in urban areas.[9] 80 percent of women with no education and 80 percent of women with only primary education married before 18, compared with 57 percent of women who studied at least to secondary school.[10] Girls from the poorest 20 percent of families are twice as likely to marry before 18 as girls whose families are among the richest 20 percent.[11] Recent research has suggested that there is also an increased risk of child marriage in Bangladesh in areas affected by natural disasters associated with climate change.[12] In other ways, Bangladesh has been cited as a development success story, including in the area of women’s rights. The UN cited Bangladesh’s “impressive” poverty reduction from 56.7 percent in 1991-1992 to 31.5 percent in 2010.[13] Bangladesh has achieved gender parity in primary and secondary school enrollment, according to UN figures.[14] Maternal mortality reportedly declined by 40 percent between 2001 and 2010.[15] Bangladesh’s development achievements have occasioned particular comment by experts because they have occurred in spite of weak governance and high corruption, a phenomena often referred to as the “Bangladesh paradox.” As the Economist wrote in 2009, “Of course, no one ever believed in such a paradox. It was a polite way of telling politicians that the country could do even better if they kept their hands out of the till.”[16] The United Nations University attributes Bangladesh’s successes in significant part to the economic growth the country has enjoyed due to two key factors: growth of the garment industry and remittances sent by the growing numbers of Bangladeshis who have migrated overseas in search of work.[17] It also noted with approval the Bangladesh government’s willingness to permit NGOs to deliver crucial services, an approach that has led to flourishing Bangladeshi NGOs in some sectors becoming models for other countries.[18] The United Nations and others have warned, however, that in an environment where Bangladesh’s governance has become not stronger, but instead increasingly compromised, Bangladesh is likely to struggle to maintain its progress on these development indicators.[19] Rising economic inequality in the country, as well as the increasing threats posed to Bangladesh by climate change, are of particular concern.[20] Bangladesh’s success in achieving some development goals begs the question of why the country’s rate of child marriage remains among the worst in the world. This report aims to help answer that question and suggest ways that the Bangladesh government can apply effective strategies to achieving comparable success in reducing child marriage.