Before I travelled to Bangladesh, I knew that child marriage had been identified as a key issue in the country. According to UNICEF’s 2011 State of the World’s Children report, about a third of women in Bangladesh aged 20-24 are married by the age of 15, and 66% of girls will wed before their 18th birthday. This is a shockingly high figure, placing Bangladesh in the top three countries for child marriage in the world.
What I had not really appreciated, however, were the stories behind the statistics. I had not really understood, until I met the families and the girls affected, just how embedded child marriage is in Bangladesh, not because this is somehow an ancient cultural tradition, to be respected and venerated, but because – quite simply – poverty means that there is often no other way for families to be able to feed their daughters. If you couldn’t afford the basic food necessary for survival, and you saw a way out for your daughter, so that someone else could feed and house her, you might feel impelled take that route too, even if you knew that by doing so you were likely to be subjecting her to hardship and even cruelty, and placing her in danger of death and complications in child-bearing.
Child marriage is, of course, wholly wrong. A girl who is married at, say, 14, effectively ends her childhood. She is removed from her friends and her education ceases. Stories of abuse – not just of domestic drudgery, but real abuse – are commonplace. If she has children, she is twice as likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than if she was able to wait until her twenties – and maternal death is 25 times more likely in Bangladesh than in the UK, so the danger is very real.
The impact is hard to deny when you meet the girls who have been affected by child marriage – not just the girls who have been married and who have escaped, but those who managed to avoid child marriage, but at a huge emotional cost to themselves. One particularly harrowing encounter I witnessed was with a girl who had discovered at the age of 15 that she was about to be married, but who had fought against her mother, her relatives, and the leaders of the village, all of whom had pressured her to marry. Five years later, the recollection of this time brought back raw and painful memories, both for her and for her mother, who had also clearly been scarred by the events. It is the powerlessness that poverty brings that leads parents to do this to their daughters, and it is poverty that we must fight, alongside the attitudes that lead people to think that child marriage is an acceptable solution.
Plan is doing something about this, and it is clearly part of the national conversation – in the three days I spent in Bangladesh, I found a number of references in the daily newspapers to the need to reduce and eliminate child marriage. So far, Plan has helped 87 villages declare themselves genuinely ‘child marriage free’, and to look towards education and vocational training as a way forward for their daughters instead, to help support themselves and their families.
Plan UK have released a comprehensive briefing on child marriage, presented to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting which has been taking place in Perth, Australia, and you can read it here. It explores in detail the reasons for child marriage across the world, and sets out clearly and unequivocally what Commonwealth leaders can do to end it. Do read it – and do your bit to help lobby our government and others to put an end to child marriage – not just in Bangladesh, but throughout the world.