Child marriage is an ‘epidemic’ in Bangladesh says human rights report

Rabiya was 13 when she was married to a man aged 30. She is now 14 and says her husband and his family are disappointed that she is not yet pregnant.

She does not go to school. Rabiya explained: “My in-laws said ‘If you want to study you can’ but as soon as I was married they said it’s not possible.”

Lakshmi was 12 when she was married. She said: “My in-laws didn’t really want babies but I didn’t understand how to take medicines to not have a child. I was very young, so I just got pregnant.”

Now 18, she is the mother of a six-year-old son and an infant daughter.

Both girls are from Bangladesh, where child marriage has been illegal since 1929 and where the minimum age for women to wed has been 18 since the 1980s.

Despite the law, the south Asian country has the highest rate of child marriage of girls under the age of 15 in the world – with a third of girls married before the age of 15 and 66% by 18, according to the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF. Research shows that girls who marry too young have little or no education, often have children very young and are likely to remain in poverty.

In a report released today, Human Rights Watch has accused the Bangladeshi government of failing to take sufficient steps to prevent child marriage.

Heather Barr, senior researcher on women’s rights at HWR, said: “Child marriage is an epidemic in Bangladesh and only worsens with natural disasters.

Villagers affected by erosion stand on the Meghna River – some girls said concerns about erosion had prompted their parents to marry them Picture: Omi for Human Rights Watch

“The Bangladesh government has said some of the right things but its proposal to lower the age of marriage for girls sends the opposite message. The government should act before another generation of girls is lost.”

Last year Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina promised to end child marriage by 2041. But HWR claimed she has attempted to lower the age of marriage for girls from 18 to 16.

Ms Barr added: “The Bangladesh government should follow through vigorously and promptly on the public commitments Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made to end child marriage. The first step should be to back away immediately from the proposal to lower the age of marriage for girls to 16.”

HWR also said inaction by central government and complicity by local officials allows child marriage to continue unchecked, adding that Bangladesh’s high vulnerability to natural disasters puts more girls at risk as their families are pushed into the poverty that helps drive decisions to have girls married.

Its 134-page report – Marry Before Your House is Swept Away: Child Marriage in Bangladesh – is based on more than 100 interviews across the country. Most of them were with married girls, some as young as 10.

It listed some of the factors that contribute to poor families using child marriage as coping mechanisms:

  • Parents who are unable to feed their children or pay for their education costs may seek a husband for their daughters simply so that the girls can eat
  • Poor girls lack access to education because their families cannot afford fees for exams, uniforms, stationery and other associated costs even when education is supposedly free
  • Girls who leave school are often married by their parents
  • Sexual harassment of unmarried girls – and failure by police to stem this harassment – also helps prompt child marriage
  • Social pressures and traditions, including the widespread practice of paying dowry, make child marriage not only accepted but expected in some communities

The report also highlighted that many families are pushed by natural disasters into deepening poverty, which increases the risk that their daughters will be married as children.

Families described feeling under pressure to arrange marriages quickly for their young daughters in the wake of a disaster or in the anticipation of one.

HRW did concede that in many other ways Bangladesh has been cited as a development success story, including in the area of women’s rights.

It has reduced poverty greatly in the past 20 years. It has achieved gender parity in primary and secondary school enrollment. And maternal mortality declined by 40% between 2001 and 2010. 

But HRW added: “Bangladesh’s success in achieving some development goals begs the question of why the country’s rate of child marriage remains so high, among the worst in the world.”

Learn more about the issue of child marriage around the world.

Learn more about the education issues in Bangladesh and the organisations working there.