Why is it always the woman's fault?
Ganga, a 14-year-old girl from a village of Jamalpur district recently became a bride, joining hundreds of other girls facing the same consequences each day in Bangladesh.
I am personally attached to Ganga’s case as I came to know her and her mother last September while visiting their village. She was in fifth grade then and was very enthusiastic about continuing her education and being a self-dependent woman despite the financial crises of her family.
Her mother was also very positive to continue Ganga’s education. The apparent reason for her early marriage was the aggravated financial crises of her family due to the pandemic. But it was not the case for Ganga.
She was married off due to her parents feeling insecure to leave her alone at home while both had to go out for earning. Social security and fear of being socially stigmatized led her parents to marry her off.
Ganga’s dream of being empowered through completing her education ended by becoming a child bride.
Pandemics within a pandemic
We know that due to Covid-19 pandemic, education loss of children is leading to more early marriage of girls, with other consequences like child labour, child abuse, suicide etc. More than 38 million students of Bangladesh missed out the opportunity to receive proper learning, affecting their education from March 2020 until schools opened in September this year.
Among these children, girls living in poor, marginalized, backward societies are pushed towards early marriage, whether by their parents or by the girls themselves by engaging in relationships during the long school closure.
According to a survey by Brac, child marriage has increased 13% in Bangladesh due to the pandemic. State of the World Population 2020 report by United Nations Population Fund states that an additional 13 million child marriages will be taking place worldwide between 2020 and 2030 -- mostly caused due to Covid, and Bangladesh is already listed in the top 10 countries for child marriage.
The reasons behind high early marriage rate in Bangladesh are not only poverty, lack of literacy among parents, or the lack of awareness about demerits of early marriage. It is the deep-rooted patriarchal beliefs and social practices that work as a silent killer, triggering other existing reasons for early marriage.
Famous sociologist Sylvia Walby defines patriarchy as “a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress, and exploit women.” It is a social system in which men hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege, and control of property.
Gender activist Kamla Bhasin said:
“The fight between men and women is a fight between two ideologies. One side claims that patriarchy is good. They are benefitted from patriarchal ideology. The other ones say, ‘No, equality is good.’ There are women and men on both sides.”
Some theorists say that patriarchy can be broken down into two parts: Social and familial. Advocates of gender and feminist theories highlighted how, throughout history and in most male-dominated societies, women have been treated as subordinate to men and have been vulnerable to male violence.
For male domination, the social laws and policies have discriminated against women and subjected them to the legal, cultural, and social acceptance of the use of violence against them.
In our society, there is specific gender-biased power practice as women and men are bound by familial, cultural, and societal expectations of appropriate behaviour. The male is the acknowledged authority, and women are expected to nurture and take care of the family and to maintain the family’s honour.
It silenced girls and women despite whatever social or familial abuse, harassment, and torture were imposed on them. Hence, any sort of social stigma is imposed more on a girl or woman than a boy or man.
This is true especially in rural areas. Some very common beliefs and practices include: Girls cannot take the responsibility for a family like boys as they go to live with in-laws after marriage; having only girls in a family is bad as they cannot take ancestry forward; women are held responsible for determining a child’s gender, and many more.
Similarly, when any sexual assault, abduction, rape or other similar incidents happen, blame goes to the female and her family first.
The girl instigated the boy first. Her attire was inviting. Her attitude was alluring. Her parents failed to give her proper education. She was too beautiful. She looked older than her age. Her parents should be more careful about keeping her safe.
Even the male members of the same family hold the mother responsible for the incident.
I am not saying that the male involved in the incident is not held responsible, but the way society treats a female is without empathy. It’s strange that only the female loses her chastity and social respect in the incident and the male counterpart does not seem to lose his honour and chastity.
Why is our society not equally concerned about the male counterpart’s dishonour? Why is it only the girl’s family that is stigmatized in society? This is one major reason for girls’ families being more tensed to keep their daughters safe; to them marrying off the girl is an easy and respectable solution as per social practice.
I thought: What if Ganga was a boy, would her parents have been terrified in the same way and married off their son? How many early marriages of boys do we hear happen around us due to similar factors?
The good thing is there are positive changes happening. We can see more women taking leading roles in society, becoming educated, taking responsibility for their families. We must continue challenging the patriarchal beliefs and practices still prevailing in our society.
It’s not only the responsibility of the government, social development organizations, gender activists, or the media. Each of us has a responsibility.
Emphasis should be given on educating girls and parents, sharing real life consequences of patriarchy, supporting women to be financially empowered, and engaging religious and community leaders as advocates for gender equity.
In addition, ensuring women are engaged in family and social decision making processes, ensuring proper law enforcement, encouraging the questioning of social taboos related to sex and stereotyping and showcasing successful women to create examples and encouraging other girls and woman can be some ways to move forward towards a solution. We must keep trying to find new ways to achieve this goal of eliminating patriarchy from society.
Aziza Md Aziz is a development communication professional. Email: [email protected]