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Adolescents’ lives in transition in urban spaces: Early marriage, love and relationships

  • Published at 01:59 pm December 7th, 2019
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Study the BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health found that structural and social inequalities continue to be drivers of early child marriage in urban slums of Bangladesh

The issue of child marriage has gained international prominence over the last few decades. From the standpoint of international laws and conventions, early child marriage is a clear violation of human rights, women’s rights and rights of the child. Women’s rights advocates, human rights defenders and social development practitioners globally have been determinedly promoting the need for policy and action to stop early and child marriage. 

In Bangladesh, 59% of girls are married before the age of 18 and 22% are married before they turn 15. This positions the country in fourth place for some of the highest prevalence rates of child marriage in the world. 

In line with these numbers, a recent research study conducted by the BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health (JPGSPH), BRAC University has also found that structural and social inequalities continue to be drivers of early child marriage in urban slums of Bangladesh. 

More particularly, researchers found that in the survey of over 2,136 adolescent girls living in two slums in Dhaka and Chittagong, 82% were married before the age of 18 and 43% were married by 15. As representations of the extremely high rates of child marriage that exist in Bangladesh, these two study sites were also examined to understand the reasons why young girls still continue to be married off at such a young age. 97 in-depth interviews and 11 focus group discussions were held with the respondents in the slums.

Funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada, the research findings from the three-year-long project were shared on December 1, 2019 with multiple stakeholders working on issues of early child marriage, gender and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in Bangladesh and the region. The knowledge-sharing event was hosted at the Six Seasons Hotel in Dhaka. 

Research on early child marriage is significant for several reasons but the high rates of prevalence in South Asia and West Africa are particularly a cause for concern. Recognizing this, early child marriage is also highly prioritized on today’s international development agenda and sustainable development goals which aim to eliminate child, forced and early marriage around the world. 

Dr Navsharan Singh, Senior Programme Specialist of Governance and Justice at the International Development Research Centre’s (IDRC) Asia regional office who was a guest at the program said that for IDRC, the issue of early and child marriage became a concern not only because of the extremely detrimental health, emotional and psychosocial impacts; “It concerns us because of the associated reproductive responsibility that falls on young girls when they are married which curtails many life opportunities for them as well.” 

“Most of all, early marriage often reinforces the deep structures of gender inequalities in our societies which must be further examined through more research studies like the one we are discussing today,” said Dr Singh.  

The study conducted by BRAC JPGSPH, which was led by Dr Sabina F Rashid, Professor and Dean of the School aimed to understand factors that shape early marriage among adolescent girls in urban slums and to review programs and policies in relation to early marriage in Bangladesh. 

Study findings revealed that the wish of parents or guardians to marry their daughters off before the age of 18 still remains the most commonly reported reason for child marriage. In her presentation during the event, Dr Rashid explained that poorer families worry about being able to afford a wedding. Younger brides are more desirable because they are viewed as “untainted” or malleable, and therefore the younger the girl, the less families are required to pay a high dowry demand, making early marriage a viable option.

Besides wanting to alleviate financial pressures on the family, crime, gang violence and harassment of young, unmarried girls also continues to be reasons why they are married off as it helps to ensure their safety. Anxiety about finding a suitable groom is an added pressure on the girls’ family and the uncertainty also causes parents to prefer marrying their daughters off as soon as they find a suitable husband, even if they are of such a young age. 

In the survey of 1,129 married adolescents and young women, 14% didn’t have a father in the household and 2% were orphaned. Even though girls are still more vulnerable to early marriage than boys, that doesn’t mean young men in urban slums are not getting married before the legal age (21 years for boys). 

In fragmented households with absent fathers or extremely poor households, sons are expected to support the family. Because they are earning an income they then feel they have the right to marry. Some young boys married at 17 or 18 years of age and felt they had the right to get married at that age, often influenced by peers or other men, or because they want to engage in sexual relationships, or want to have families. In two cases it was found that parents encouraged their sons to get married because they believed marriage would make them settle down and stay away from gang involvement or other criminal activities. However, we found several of these young men later struggled to support their wives and families, not just financially but also mentally and emotionally. Due to their lack of maturity at the age of marriage, they are unable to cope with the societal pressures and demands. 

The study also revealed many changes in the dynamics of how young people living in urban slums are navigating their lives, experiencing love and using digital technology to engage in romantic relationships. 

About 128 adolescents surveyed reported having access to mobile phones and 25 said they have Facebook profiles. They shared stories of relationships starting over the use of the social media platform, followed by exchanging phone numbers and talking to each other. Sometimes boys buy girls mobile phones and credit to speak to them. Conversations are carried out at night in narrow, secluded alleyways which allows young people more privacy to carry out these relationships. About 38% of respondents said love relationships, which might begin over digital means of communication like Facebook, were also a major reason behind early marriage instead of it being arranged by parents. 19% of respondents claimed that due to such romantic relationships, young girls often wanted to get married on their own accord. 

Finding from the study also shed more light on delayed marriage among young people in urban slums. 18% of married young girls surveyed were married after the age of 18 and 9% of the total young women reported being unmarried. The main reason for delaying marriage was that the girl reported wanting to earn money and work, or continue their education. However, these young girls still face taunts and criticism for delaying marriage. It was found though, that better-off households in the slum have daughters who are delaying marriage and continuing their studies as their higher financial status lets them bypass criticism for not conforming to social norms. 

Such findings reflect certain urban contextual factors that influence marriage and transitions taking place in urban spaces of Bangladesh. Girls are gaining more income-generating opportunities and are generally keen to earn and establish their financial independence. Since parents may rely on their children to earn money and contribute to the family, there is increasing evidence of changing attitudes among parents who value girls’ education and participation in the workforce. 

Young people in Bangladesh face a myriad of challenges as they navigate sociocultural norms and pressures towards a healthy adulthood. Adolescents must tackle new expectations and opportunities as well as pressures of reproducing existing gender norms and roles in these spaces. 

Research undertaken by BRAC JPGSPH also examines these areas including SRHR of unmarried, working women living in urban Dhaka, anxieties and concerns of young people in relationships, SRHR and experiences of school-going adolescents, emotional and mental health of youth, and SRHR among marginalized communities such as persons with disabilities and their sexuality. 

Findings around these research areas were also shared at the program which included the launch of a photo narrative book that was produced and based on findings from the BRAC JPGSPH and IDRC Early Child Marriage project. 

A mobile app for Android devices featuring SRHR information for young people in Bangla was also launched. The app was funded by NWO-WOTRO (Netherlands) and unveiled in the presence of Jeroen Steeghs, Deputy Head of Mission and Head of Economic Affairs and Development Cooperation, Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

“With collective action and collective wisdom of scholarship, we can unmake harmful traditions like early child marriage and make change possible, breaking the powerlessness of girls and giving them pathways to exercise their agency,” said Steeghs. “Through the right mix of research, policy change, programs and political will, structural factors that sustain the prevalence of child marriage can be shifted to end this harmful practice.”

Anushka Zafar is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Gender and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights at the BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University