Child marriage turning into major social evil

51 per cent of girls in Bangladesh are married early: UNICEF
Though there is legal prohibition against child marriage, parents or guardians think that marrying their girls off, at an early age, would relieve them of economic burden and protect their daughters from the dangers of sexual assault, said advocate Salma Ali, executive director of Bangladesh Women Lawyers Association (BWLA). The Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 set the minimum age for marriage of men and women in Bangladesh, she said. It is 21 for men and 18 for women.
The number of cases of child marriage, especially girls, is still high in many parts of the country, because of lack of enforcement of the law and awareness about the ill-effects of child marriage, she said.
A survey conducted by the Unicef, in 2006, says that the percentage of child marriages in Rajshahi is 41.8, whereas in Khulna it is 39.3; Barishal, 36.7; Dhaka, 32.9; Chittagong, 21.9; and Sylhet, 19.1.
The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) estimates that the adolescent population in the country is about 2.80 crore and 1.37 crore of them are females.
According to a Unicef report, released this year, about 10 million girls are married off before the age of 18 every year across the world.
In South Asia, 48 per cent of the total number of girls, aged between 15 and 24, were married before the age of 18, UNFPA estimates. In Afghanistan, 54 per cent of girls are married before the age of 18, while 50 per cent of girls in India, and 51 per cent of girls in Bangladesh, are married early. The Unicef report further states that at least 20 countries in the world do not have any laws restricting the age of marriage. Due to laxity in the enforcement of the law, girls between 10 and 15 years of age are being married off, endangering their health and creating social problems.
Shirin, a 13-year-old divorcee mother who lost her child during delivery, is now leading a life of uncertainty at her father’s residence in Shialcoal union under Sirajganj Sadar Upazilla.
She was forced to marry a 17-year-old boy, when she was a student of Class VI.
Shirin’s father, Sobhan Ali, a poor rickshaw-puller, was aware that his daughter was underage and the country’s laws did not permit such marriage. But he was worried about her security and decided to marry her off, as early as possible.
On the other hand, Sobhan Ali was much taken in by the well-off status of his former son-in-law’s family. So, he did not reject the marriage proposal, brought by his friend living in a neighbouring village.
Shirin said, “When I came to know that I’d be married off the next day, I didn’t know what to do. I wept the whole night. I never thought of marriage at that age. When I told my mother that I didn’t want to get married, she rebuked me and said that the boy earned well and that I’d have no economic hardship.”
“Even my aunt told me harshly that if I didn’t agree to get married, I’d be thrown out of the house. I had no choice, but to agree to the marriage, silently,” she added.
When asked how she was married off at such a tender age, she said, “I was 13 years old and the boy, Ruhul, was 17. The Quazi was unwilling to register the marriage, but the senior members of the family somehow managed it. I was married off with Tk. 15,000 as dowry.”
“The two months following my marriage, I didn’t have to do much work. But everything changed after that. My in-laws began scolding me, whenever I made any mistake in household chores. My husband, who didn’t do any work, would also scold me very often,” she said.
“After eight months, one day I felt profusely nauseous. Later, it was confirmed that I had pregnant for three months. Despite my pregnancy, I had to do all the work of the house. Most of the time, I had fever and cold,” she added.
“When I was in labour, a local midwife was called in to deliver the baby at home. As the situation went awry, I was carried on a pushcart to a nearby private clinic. But the clinic authorities were unwilling to admit me, on account of my critical condition. Later, my father and husband signed a bond,” she further said.
“Though I was saved by the mercy of the Almighty, my baby died,” she said, sobbing.
“Later, my in-laws and husband started condemning me for the death of the baby. Day and night, I was tortured verbally and, sometimes, physically,” she said.
When the torture became too unbearable, Shirin one day left her in-laws’ place and came back to her father’s home.
“My parents decided not to send me back to my in-laws. I also attempted suicide under the pressure of the circumstances. But I was saved by my parents and got divorced later,” she said, her voice choking.
According to the Unicef survey, 50 per cent of the girls do not know when and to whom they are going to be married.
“The rate of child marriage is still high in the country, for poor socio-economic condition and laxity in the existing laws for the protection of early marriage,” executive director of the Development for Disadvantaged People (DDP) Quazi Sohel Rana told The Independent.
“A 12-year-old girl has no awareness about reproductive health. How can she manage a family and rear children?” Sohel Rana said.
“It is inhuman to impose the responsibility of a family on an underage girl and force her to have sex. It is her time to play, learn, and grow up,” he added.
Salma Ali said child marriage was not illegal from a religious point of view, but it was unlawful, according to the law of the land.
“If the laws were properly implemented, a great number of child marriages would have been stopped. The Quazi (marriage registrar), in many cases, complete all marriage formalities, in exchange of money, without considering the age of consent,” she added.
“Quite often, the marriage documents are full of false information about the ages of the prospective brides and bridegrooms. As a result, it often became very difficult for the Quazi to prove that underage girls were being married off,” said Sohel Rana.
Some marriage registrars admit that they record the ages of the brides and bridegrooms, as per the guardians’ statements.
“Sometimes we don’t have anything to do. We have to write the age, as the guardians state it to be. Sometimes, we are also under tremendous pressure to do so. But, we do try to check necessary documents, to prove the age of marriage,” said Abdul Majid, a quazi of Shyamoli area of the city.
But laws, alone, cannot protect underage girls from early marriage. Rather, awareness of the family and community and all-out support from the government and non-government organisations were necessary to prevent early marriage, Salma Ali said.

-With The Independent input

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