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No agency for child brides

  • Published at 07:03 pm June 6th, 2014

Assia is a sweet girl of 14 whom I met last week, just outside Khulna. She has a two-year-old son and a 10-month-old daughter. I met her to understand better what circumstances push girls into child marriage. What follows is a true account of her narrative, but names have been anonymised. I began by asking her about her parents and her life before marriage.

Her father died just days before she was born and tragically she blames herself. He was a fisherman but one gloomy night, a ghost visited his boat and asked him for his fish. Her father refused the ghost’s his request and returned home with the catch. He asked his wife to cook it for him, but she was heavily pregnant (with Assia) and ill. His mother scolded him, saying her daughter-in-law would do no cooking that night, and he could cook it himself or go to bed hungry. He grumbled and cooked it himself, eating the entire fish without sharing. Within less than three days, he succumbed to a terrible stomach ailment, one commonly known to plague fishermen who disrespect ghosts.

I reminded Assia she was not even born then, so she should not feel guilty. She solemnly replied that had her mother been well, she would never have allowed her father to eat that fish which belonged to the ghost.

Assia was born a week after the funeral and her paternal grandmother asked them to stay on, but her mother knew how little she had, so she returned instead to her own parents’ home in Rampal, Khulna. To feed her two girls, her mother did whatever work she could find: Sometimes a maid, or day labour on a farm, sometimes breaking bricks, or carrying buckets of water to construction sites. Assia had to drop out of school as there was no money left for tuition after paying for her sister Asma’s medical bills.

Asma, she explained, though well past the normal age of puberty, had not grown any breasts, nor experienced menstruation. The condition worsened and Asma became weak and lethargic. Her mother spent a great deal of money trying to treat her and finally, doctors said she would die within a year. Assia’s aunt in Satkhira knew of a kobiraj (witchdoctor) and suggested they pay him a visit. The distance was too great for Asma to travel in her condition, so Assia’s mother went instead. The kobiraj charged Tk5,000 upfront and summoned a jinn to help them. The jinn was female, and she performed an operation late that night, while Assia and Asma slept in their room, huddled together for warmth. 

Assia’s mother returned to Rampal, unsure of what to expect. Miraculously, within weeks, Asma began to bleed and within a year, she had developed full breasts. As instructed by the kobiraj, her mother married Asma off two years later. At that time, Assia was ten.

Assia’s mother was very beautiful, and she was still in her early 30s. She was drawing unwanted attention from neighbouring men so when an honest fisherman professed his love for her, Assia’s grandmother agreed to marry her off. Her mother moved in with that man, and Assia stayed with her grandmother.

Two years later, Assia’s paternal uncles found a boy for her to marry. She did not want to leave her grandmother, but neither of them could say no to her uncles. The marriage took place. The boy, it turned out, was 28, more than double her age, and without a job. The boy’s father had received a boat from Shiree, which he took out to the Sundarbans to hunt crabs. Assia claims she was happy with her new family, but in reality she had no choice in the twists and turns of her life. 

Her dependence on her uncles made it hard to refuse them, and they had incentives to keep marriage costs as low as possible. In this way, she is treated almost as if she is a piece of property for them to do with what they will.

I asked Assia if she had any particularly fond memories or dreams for the future. She recalled a school picnic trip to Norail where they ate mutton and rode on a ferris wheel. She dreams of another such trip someday. 

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