A Roundtable discussion on child marriage was held at the Dhaka Tribune office on October 24
Child marriage is a long-established social ritual in Bangladesh. Even today, more than half (67 percent) of the total adolescent girls (13.7 million) get married be by their adolescent period according to UNICEF. Closely linked to gender based violence (GBV) and the discrimination faced by adolescent girls, child marriage is a serious concern for Bangladesh as more than half of women currently aged 20-24, was married by 18 years according to UNICEF 2017.
According to the International Centre for Research on Women (2012), the prevalence of child marriage in Bangladesh is the highest in South Asia and even though poverty is not the only contributing factor, it is one of the strongest drivers for this high level of child marriage.
There are more to the problem than the age of girls in early marriage. The societal pressure to prove one’s fertility that comes almost immediately after marriage has resulted in high levels of teenage pregnancy and fertility. The adolescent birth rate, for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 years is 83.5 per 1000 women (UNDP, 2018), which is again the highest rate in the South Asian region.
The high level of child marriage and associated teenage pregnancy results in many negative health and social consequences which include obstetric fistula and other pregnancy related morbidities, maternal mortality, neonatal/infant mortality, anemia and overall poor health of both the baby and the mother.
A recent study conducted in southern Bangladesh described how child marriage results in early, mistimed pregnancies because young girls lack power and agency. Inadequate information, coupled with the traditional and conservative norms of Bangladeshi society, place adolescents, especially girls, at greater risk for unwanted pregnancies and increased vulnerability for STIs and HIV/AIDS.
Moreover, in Bangladesh, only around half of the adolescent girls can complete secondary education (BANBEIS). After marriage, most adolescent girls have to pause their education and soon they become pregnant. Once a mother, the possibility of returning to education for these adolescent girls is quite low as most of the husbands and in-laws do not allow them to go outside or get involved in any activities beyond their regular household role. Restricted mobility, burden of household roles, lack of access in decision making are reducing their opportunities to get skilled and be involved in income generating activities (IGA).
In the next decade, globally more than 90% of young people where 600 million are adolescent girls living in developing countries will enter into informal sector work where low wages, indecent and hazardous work environment, lack of protection from exploitation and violence are associated with (UN, 2018). Early marriage, a crucial factor that impedes early married girls’ continuation of education, having skills, involvement in paid economic activities and overall empowerment.
This low participation in labor force doesn’t only affect the individual but also the economic growth of the country as a whole. In Bangladesh only 31 percent female participate in the labour force according to BBS. A recent study has estimated that increase of women participation by 10% can raise the GDP growth of a country up to 1 percent (Dhaka Tribune, 2017), which will then directly contribute to the holistic development of the country. While there are numerous GO-NGO interventions and policies trying to tackle child marriage, girls already married at an early age remain eclipsed, if not forgotten.
Consolidating with the theme of the Girl Child Day 2018 (national and international), IMAGE Plus in its 360- degree campaign ‘I do Exist’ at national and local level emphasizes on the sustainable inclusion of the early married girls to get access to education and work opportunity who are still invisible in the society.
With a view to increase visibility of these forgotten girls and influence policy makers at national and local level, IMAGE Plus project organized a round table discussion under the theme ‘Education and Income Generating Activities: Opportunities and Challenges for Early Married Girls’ on October 24 at the Dhaka Tribune office. Dhaka Tribune was the Media Partner of the event.
The issues were under sharp focus as experts from the NGO sector, activists, government representatives and journalists joined together in the roundtable. Starting with a keynote presentation by FarhanaJesmine Hasan, speakers at the roundtable went on to discuss the multiple dimensions of the problem and its repercussions, generating a set of recommendations at the end. The session was moderated by Mahmudul Kabir, Country Director, Terre Des Hommes Netherlands.
Quotes from the speakers
Farhana Jesmine Hasan, Project Director, IMAGE Plus, TdH Netherlands
We have conducted a study in our project area and found societal obstruction, and patriarchal attitude as two of the biggest impediments toward early married girl empowerment. There are also gaps in the formal education infrastructure; Girls who get married at an early age are stripped off the stipend, while their in-laws consider the cost of their education as an extra-burden, hence don’t want to expend on. Moreover, they don’t have the necessary skills or in most cases, the suitable ones to engage in income generating activities. These are some of the major factors that work behind the massive drop-out rates of the early married girls from schools. A few opportunities in the IMAGE Plus areas have been identified as the nationwide Government project related to skills, and CSO’s initiatives with IGA related trainings. Other possibilities are distant learning and advocacy with Education department for special consideration for the early married girls.
Md. Saiful Alam, Director, SKS Foundation
We are trying to provide married adolescent girls with necessary skills training to increase their capacity to join the productive market. In terms of their life skills, we’ve seen that they are more interested in the agricultural sector-especially in livestock and home-gardening, considering the low-mobility these works involve. However, more training and financial support is much needed to boost the progress. We also need to start dialogues with financial institutions to fund these girls, so that they can utilize their entrepreneurial agency, whereas setting up stable market linkages to get them started is also a prerequisite to their empowerment. A movement for education like the massive initiatives taken to prevent Child Marriage up-to grass root level by the Government and CSOs could be beneficial.
Tasneem Athar, Director, CAMPE
Married adolescent girls are an invisible cohort in the society. It’s true that there’s no institutional barrier to their education, but challenges remain as the culture doesn’t allow them to pursue education after marriage. Moreover, there’s a lack of sensitivity among teachers in handling the cases of married adolescent girl students. It is therefore necessary to also equip teachers through training, so that they can better contribute to their retention in school. As we all know, girls’ security and safety in society is a key factor that motivates their parents to marry them off at an early age and if we really want them to stay in education, we’ll have to protect them first.The psycho-social aspect of these married girls is also in need to be considered with high importance.
Humaira Aziz, Director, Women and Girls Empowerment, CARE Bangladesh
Monitoring mechanism in educational institutions is a must to ensure married adolescent girls’ retention in education. Our dialogues to eradicate child marriage should be more rights focused. In terms of their involvement in income generating activities, I also think establishing linkage with market is the first thing to do after they are trained for a particular job. TVET centers, if made satellite upto the remote areas, could be more helpful for the girls to get access to training. We’ll also have to keep in mind that homestead economy doesn’t always empower adolescent girls, rather it contributes more to the family, which is why we should focus on the other markets and skills too. Girls also need financial management education to manage their business or entrepreneurs. Sports is evidently an effective breaker of social norms, hence should be adopted as an instrument to the empowerment of married adolescent girls. We also think about the family planning services for married adolescent girls as well as mindset about the early child conception immediately after the marriage which is an identified key barrier against education and IGA.
Rashida Parveen, Founder & Executive Director, Adolescent and Youth Network Action (AYNA)
In Bangladesh, girls who get married at an early age is not considered as an adolescent anymore and we need to change this perception. As we are now going through a massive economic transformation where goods and products of all sorts are being marketed even to the remotest areas, I believe life skills based education can contribute to their welfare now more than ever. If we can engage these adolescents in the marketing of these products by training them beforehand and joining hands with the corporate sectors, because we should not limit them to homestead and handicrafts products and skills. A review is needed on the demand and possibilities of marketing of new and innovative products. Service oriented skills and non-stereotype skills training can help married adolescent girls in future to be involved in income generating activities. Media should recognize married adolescent girls more and bring out their hardships and rights issues forward to the public.
Shahnaz Rahman, Acting Head- Child Rights and Protection, Plan International
A recent report from the World Bank showed an enormous cost of not educating girls in a country and I think our discussions in regard should focus on this. Our approaches to influence policies and design interventions should be more evidence based. If we look at the recently adopted NPA, we’ll see that it is quite inclusive and comprehensive, but we need to ensure that it is being properly implemented. This is time we break the social taboos that limits girls from achieving their full potential. In terms of their skill training, there’s a huge potential of girls in the ICT sector, among others. But sadly, even today aspiration behind girls’ education are solely reliant on their reproductive roles, which needs to be changed immediately. It’s high time for a joint effort of Government, Corporate Sector and NGOs because it is not possible to address the issue nationwide through just the development sector.
Syeda Munira Sultana, Program Officer, RMG project, ILO, CO, Dhaka
It is really worrying that around 60% of the girls in the country is getting married before 18 and in fact having children. This also impacts upon the labour force and is decreasing the number of skilled labour. If we really want to graduate from our LDC status by the time we want to, we’ll have to involve more women in the skilled labour force and reduction in child marriage can contribute greatly to this. If the government don’t put the necessary focus on these issues, I think we are just leaning toward to a dark future. We need to offer special incentives for early married girls in Technical and Vocational Education and Training, while bringing them under social safety net with conditional incentives. To reduce the number of child marriage, sensitizing marriage registrars is a must as many of them tend to assist people by forging documents and/or engineering age related information.
Tahsinah Ahmed, Chief Executive Officer, UCEP, Bangladesh
While microcredit has been associated with a lot of success stories and development in the rural Bangladesh, it is also influencing early marriage in many of these areas, an issue that we often overlook. To empower married adolescent girls, developing skills will not necessarily translate into production as long as the skills comply with market demand. We also need role models from these girls who can be a symbol of achievement and can inspire others to develop their skills. Proper career counselling and guidance can increase the retention rates of these girls in training institutions. But then again, to enhance their employability, we need to emphasize on their soft skills related to employability and self-protection along with the futuristic skills in training.
Dr. Farhana Haque, Deputy Manager – MMWW Project, Action Aid Bangladesh
People are still not aware of the exact laws and fines in terms of early marriage. I have had the opportunity to sit down with a couple of teachers who are teaching the kids about laws in terms of early marriage when the same teachers end up with traditional norms and practice.” how can you expect a change in the society? We cannot bring back the ones who already got married at a young age to their normal lives. But we can help them with the basic knowledge of SRHR including conjugal relations, or family planning for having a baby amongst them etc. In terms of market linkage, besides the skills, the market is still long way to meet the minimum work environment for a woman, even as a buyer, such as lack of sanitary facilities, no room for keeping children with them, and safety and security.
Toslim Uddin Khan, Chief of Program Operations, Social Marketing Company
Speaking off the edge, if we look deeply we can notice that in comparison with the neighboring countries, Bangladesh has developed rapidly in the past two decades. We cannot put a pause on this; we have to make sure that the development rate of our country keeps running on a constant basis. Early marriage is a huge barrier when in case of development. An overview of researches, three things are very important- not getting married under the age of 18, not giving birth before the age of 20 and having an age gap of at least three years between siblings. If these things are not maintained then this puts a huge effect on the maternal mortality rate.
Nazia Haider, Programme Manager – Safer Migration, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Embassy of Switzerland
We often use the word “comfort” and women go through with all sorts of difficulties to support family and society to be in comfort zone. They always face violence, either physical or mental and end up being comfortable with it. They end up accepting the negativities thinking it is important for their family to survive.
We see many girls get married at an early age and the prime reasons behind this are poverty and lack of security. They usually get married to someone a lot older than them and after a while, they are sent out to become migrant workers. And this is where they are exploited the most as they don’t know about their rights. Interestingly 30% of the migrated girls are early married girls
Mostofa Kamal, Manager, Education, VSO
Gathering from my field experience, I can say that very little of these discussions translate into the field. We need to focus on the implementation of the policies and outcomes of dialogues in the field. We conducted a research on the child marriage issue while I was at World Vision. We gather some female school students and asked them to close their eyes and imagine a scenario where they end up getting married at this age and to think of one thing that will be taken away from them and average response that we got was “we won’t be able to go to school anymore”. And sadly, this is the reality. Therefore, at least in the second chance education system, the early married girls are in need to be mentioned and focused with opportunities.
Anwarul Islam Sarker, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Youth and Sports
We have brought a change in the society. Things are not the same as they were back in the days when our mothers went through a similar stage in life. The government, its people, non-government organisations have played a huge role behind bringing a positive change.
KM Shahiduzzaman, Social Welfare Officer, City Social Service Office – 6, Dhaka, Ministry of Social Welfare, Bangladesh
As mentioned in the previous discussions, there are three key factors that work behind early marriage- poverty, lack of skills and consciousness. Limited human resource to fighting child marriage creates the biggest stumbling block. Comprehensive measures are needed in order to put a stop to child marriage and labor. We cannot expect a rapid change; this practice has been going on for centuries. We can focus on one small area or village and try to make an example out of it in order for others to do the same and start a chain reaction in order to bring a positive change in the society.
Mushfiqua Zaman Satiar, Senior Policy Adviser – SRHR and Gender, Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands
It has been evident in social studies that it is imperative to keep girl child in school toward them off from child marriage but to do so, we also need to give them skills and means of production. To reap the benefits of the demographic dividend, we need to strengthen our institutional capacities to stop child marriage as it will be complementary to a sustainable economic and social growth. I can say from my background that economic empowerment is one of the empowerment that brings the other rights with it. When a girl is economically empowered the family is bound to listen to her or they at least try.
Jahangir Alam, Director-Planning & Development, Directorate of Technical Education
It is undeniable that the government has taken elaborate measures to include girls in TVET. For instance, girl student constitute 13 per cent of our total student, among which 18 per cent receive monthly scholarship. But before involving married adolescent girls in the training modules, I think we need to sort out their favoured set of skills and industry first. To create a balance between the male and female students and provide a gender friendly education, we have developed a gender strategy in collaboration with International Labour Organization. Besides, construction of several specialized technical college and schools are in full pace now. This leaves us with hope, as we believe that by ensuring girls education and employment, we can substantially close the broader gender gaps in society.
Mahmuda Sharmeen Benu, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Women and Children Affairs (MoWCA)
I believe the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017, if properly implemented, will reduce the number of child marriage to almost zero by 2030. There are many committees formed to work on this law at the state, district and sub-district level. If the people working under these committees carry out their duties and responsibilities properly we can surely reduce child marriage and Bangladesh will lead towards curing itself from this curse. As lack of awareness is one of the prime reasons behind child marriage going on in society we have formed a Kishor-Kishori (Adolescent) club. It is a club carrying out activities to raise awareness amongst kids so that they can prevent child marriages on their own.
AS Asiful Islam, Editor, Planning and Strategy, Dhaka Tribune
This practice transgresses our notions of childhood and married life so thoroughly that the language of description is itself conflicted.
Even as we exchanged ideas today, participants switched between referring to child brides as girls and adult women, interchangeably. And uncomfortably.
We have heard accounts of parents and teachers who oppose underage wives from attending school for fear that their knowledge of grown-up matters will have a bad effect on their peers.
We must find the language to speak frankly and openly about the children and adolescents who are compelled by their society to endure adult burdens.
Mahmudul Kabir, Country Director, Terre des Hommes Netherlands Bangladesh Office
Marrying a girl as a child is illegal and extremely harmful for her future. Every child has the right to go school and we all need to help the early married girl to go back to school. We know that many girls are burdened with giving birth to another child which is highly risky. But all these early married girls have the potentials to grow as proud and potential citizen. We can support them with education and livelihood skills, so that they are able to contribute to their family income as well as national economy. We need to work together to give the early married girls a dignified and secured life where they can claim their rights and potentials.
Let’s STOP CHILD MARRIAGE. If there is no child marriage, there will be no early married girls.
At the table