As a woman and a mother, nothing seems more ghastly and utterly avoidable to me than child marriage. I read the statistics, same as all of you, but the words didn’t quite hit home till I met Reena*. She came to me to ask for help. I work at a livelihoods programme that builds human capacity to help people climb out of extreme poverty. As such, it isn’t unusual for someone to approach me for support. What was unusual was her age. She was a sprightly sixteen-year-old; a bright-eyed, beauty from Mymensingh.
With a pleading smile, she asked if I could find her a job. I scolded her and said she should be in school. It’s the lack of skills that lead to low wage employment for our women, I explained. She said she had dropped out of school when she was ten.
This is not uncommon. Among our beneficiaries, only 5.8% of women have studied beyond grade 5 according to our baseline survey (shiree CMS 1 Phase 1), while 88% of female household heads received no schooling and are now sole breadwinners after their husbands passed away, abandoned or divorced them. School stipends for girls have helped improve the statistics, but in reality, most of these girls are still without any marketable skills.
I asked her why she dropped out so young, was it an illness of a bread-earning parent, or a flood perhaps that pushed them into poverty? She said, she was married off at 10. Why, I asked, appalled. She explained that she had two brothers at the time, one who was eight and one who was one.
Rakib, her eight-year-old brother, was a key earning member of the family. He sold cigarettes and tea on the roadside while their father worked at a nearby rice mill and their mother took care of the baby and the home. Shortly after Eid one year, Rakib and two of his friends decided to take a bus to a nearby movie hall to celebrate, with the little bit of cash they had stashed away.
The two boys, who were older than Rakib, returned that night, without him. They said they had lost him at the movie hall, which was crowded due to the holidays, and they assumed he would make his way back home alone.
He never returned. They put an ad in the papers, informed the local police station and searched for months, with no luck. Reena’s grief-stricken mother collapsed emotionally and psychologically, and is still not “normal.”
At this point in the story, my eyes started watering. The fear of losing a child is one I’m sure all parents can relate to. The horrible reality of losing a child is one I wish upon no one!
Unable to afford to feed the family on only his income, Reena’s father decided she would be safer and better looked after with someone else. A village friend had frequently expressed her interest in Reena for her son, Harun, so an agreement was made.
With a dowry of 10,000 taka, Reena would marry the son, who was already 22, and her mother-in-law (Amma) would raise her as if she were her own daughter.
The first year was alright. Reena missed her parents, her baby brother and her lost brother, but she got along well with Amma and with her sister-in-law (Bhabi) who was several years older.
Harun, and Harun’s older brother (Bhabi’s husband) were daily labourers and they hardly interacted with the girls. When I asked Reena to describe Harun to me, she said he was hairy and frightening and he never smiled. She called him Chacha, (uncle), and tried to stay clear of him.
Over the years, Amma’s affection became sterner and more demanding. Reena ate more food than Amma had expected and so Reena’s father was asked to contribute to the family costs. The dowry, Amma reasoned, had been too small.
Reena was made to wash clothes, fetch water, cook and help with other household chores. Only 11, she would watch other children playing and walking to school, but that was not her life.
Still, she says, Bhabi had a little boy (Babu) whom she loved very much and the two of them would play together when she had completed her chores, so life was tolerable.
Then one day, a year later, Reena was chopping vegetables, when she noticed a pool of blood by her foot. She screamed and cried and yanked off her shalwar, thinking perhaps a leech had attached itself to her thigh.
Amma realised what had happened and asked Bhabi to show her how to prepare a cotton pad for herself using an old sari. Reena didn’t have any old saris and neither did Bhabi, so her grumbling mother-in-law tore off a piece from one of her tattered discards.
Bhabi explained to Reena that bleeding happened to girls when they hit womanhood and she must prepare her own pads henceforth because no one had time to prepare them for her.
Reena’s parents had never spoken to her about menstruation or puberty and so the bleeding, the cramps, the angry mother-in-law and impatient bhabi were all a bit much to bear. Reena went to bed early, feeling distraught.
Reena used to sleep between Amma and Babu in one room of their mud hut, while bhabi and her husband slept in the other. Harun used to sleep on the floor in front of the door.
As Reena waited for her mother-in-law to come to bed, she wondered what her little lost brother was up to, somewhere else in the world, under the same sky…
That night, Amma and Babu never came to bed. Instead, shortly after dinner, Harun crawled into bed. Reena was confused and scared. When Harun began pulling off her clothes and touching her, she started screaming to Amma to save her.
To her, Harun was a hairy monster who was now hurting her. Harun slapped her a few times and told her to shut up, but she kept crying. She was loud, so Harun then pushed a pillow over her face to muffle her cries. She could hardly breathe.
He then raped her. With the pillow on her face. And once it was done, he turned his back to her, and snored. Reena bled and cried and bled and cried all night long and as she told me her story, I too wept and wept and wept. But what good are our tears?
With the early rays of dawn, Reena snuck out of her home and got on the next bus out of town. She took the bus straight to Dhaka, where her aunt lived in a slum. Luckily, she had her aunt’s number. She made it to her aunt’s house in a bleeding mess and swore to never return to Harun again.
Her parents came to know of the situation and tried to calm her down. Her mother-in-law told Harun off for being impatient. He could have been a little more “gentle” she explained. But the damage was done.
Reena was psychologically traumatised and had no interest in returning to her husband. Instead, she found work in Dhaka, as a maid, for a few months, till her belly started to balloon. As it turned out, Reena had a daughter, whom she named Akhi. Akhi is now five years old (and looked after by Reena’s half-mad mother). Reena, 16, is still a maid.
What can we do for Reena? And for her vulnerable daughter? And for the millions of other precious darling girls who are going to be married off this year alone? 65% of our girls are married off before the age of 18. 35% before the age of 15. These statistics are horrific.
The law is clear. 1929 Child Marriage Restraint Act says no marriage before 18 (girls) or 21 (boys). However, it is an ancient law that has not been updated, nor is it enforced. If the law is broken, or the fine (Tk1000) is paid, then nothing is done. Once married, even if to an underaged girl, sexual intercourse without consent is not considered a punishable offense.
Let us explore why child marriage is still a predominant practice in Bangladesh despite the numerous efforts to fight it. Firstly, sheer poverty disables families from providing for their daughters.
In desperation, parents may marry off their girls. The lack of security for young girls in villages is another reason parents cite for marrying their daughters off young. Mothers of sons also seem to think younger girls are more “malleable” i.e. easier to oppress.
As such, younger girls are easier to marry off, and cheaper, to boot. Dowries for younger girls need not be as high as for older girls, especially if the man she is marrying is disabled!
Furthermore, women’s lack of ability to demand rights in any legal framework also points to the failures of the state to protect its poorest, most marginalised citizens. None of the religions have done much to protect girls from this travesty either.
PLAN and ICDDRB’s survey last year points to a lack of education as a strong factor associated with Bangladesh’s high levels of child marriage. Furthermore, marriage under the age of 18 also deprives girls of their right to education.
Many girls drop out of school after entering wedlock. Another adverse effect of child marriage is early pregnancy and childbirth. These can have detrimental and long-term health effects on girls whose bodies are not developed enough to give birth, and also increase health risks to the newborn.
Bleak as this sounds, the saving grace is that social norms can be changed. Already, our statistics are better than what they were ten years ago. Several villages have managed to abolish the practice of child marriage altogether and youth groups such as the Wedding Busters have taken charge of the fate of their girls, giving them more agency.
With further efforts on this front, larger budget allocations for the empowerment and education of girls, better law enforcement for women’s safety in villages, and greater outreach of birth and marriage registrations, we can hope for improvements. In the mean time, we must hang our heads in shame, as innocent girls are married off and raped every day.