Op-Ed

How the US should play a role in ending child marriage in Bangladesh

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government has taken a devastating step backwards, proposing to lower the age of marriage for girls from 18 to 16

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© 2015 Omi for Human Rights Watch

Liesl Gerntholtz  is women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch.

“This is a river erosion area — because of that my father is very poor, so he got me married,” said Sultana, married at age 14 to a 21 or 22 year old man a few months after her family lost their home. “My father said it was not possible for him to keep me. Whatever land my father had and the house he had went under the water in the river erosion and that’s why my parents decided to get me married.”

Sultana (not her real name) was 16 years old and seven months pregnant when Human Rights Watch interviewed her. She was living with her in-laws in a house they built on leased land after they too lost their home and land to river erosion. She wanted to continue her studies but her in-laws would not allow it. “I used to enjoy student life,” Sultana said. “Without studies, life is very difficult.”

More girls under the age of 15 get married in Bangladesh than in any other country in the world — a total of 29 percent. By age 18, when they should be graduating from high school, 65 percent of Bangladeshi girls are married.

Poor girls in Bangladesh face a perfect storm: poverty, social pressures, and lack of access to education, all of which drive child marriage. These families often can’t afford the costs of education — which include exam fees, stationary and other expenses even in primary school where tuition fees are waived — and see girls as ready for marriage once they’ve left school. Dowry traditions encourage child marriage by setting lower dowry for younger brides, while natural disasters push families further into poverty and sometimes directly prompt child marriage, as in Sultana’s case. Many unattached girls face sexual harassment in their communities and even threats of kidnapping; parents, finding no help from police, see marriage as a way to protect girls.

Several different girls, in different parts of the country, used the exact same words to describe to Human Rights Watch how child marriage had affected them. “My life is destroyed,” they said.

Tragically, research supports that view. Girls who marry early are unlikely to stay in school, and many children in Bangladesh leave education before secondary school. Girls face serious health risks — including death — as a result of early pregnancy, risks which also affect their children. They are more likely to suffer domestic violence and abuse. Some of the most heartbreaking stories documented in a new Human Rights Watch report about child marriage in Bangladesh are those of girls who were abandoned by their husbands and begged to be taken back even after suffering horrific abuse, simply because they had nowhere else to go.

The government of Bangladesh can and should do more to end child marriage. In addition to being the right thing to do, it’s also legally required under several international conventions Bangladesh signed on to — including those upholding children’s rights and preventing discrimination against women. In 2014, Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, pledged to end child marriage before the age of 15 by 2021, and by that date to reduce by one-third marriages between the ages of 15 and 18. She promised to strengthen the law that already makes child marriage a crime, and to develop a national action plan on ending all child marriage under the age of 18, a goal she set for 2041. Although these goals, even if achieved, would see children continue to marry for the next 26 years, at least they seemed to signal welcome attention to the issue by the Bangladesh government. In the months that followed, however, Sheikh Hasina’s government took a devastating step backwards, proposing to lower the age of marriage for girls from the current 18 to 16.

 

One of the world’s leading donors to Bangladesh, in fiscal year 2014, the U.S. gave almost $268 million in aid to the country. The U.S. is also playing an important role in the global struggle against child marriage, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has developed a “vision” on fighting child marriage. The U.S. funds programs specifically focused on ending child marriage in a number of countries including Bangladesh. U.S. funding to Bangladesh also includes a major focus on promoting health, and programming promoting access to education.

But the U.S. can make more targeted decisions on funding. USAID should consider tailoring programming to focus more on groups in Bangladesh that are working to put in place the systemic and legal reforms required to end childhood marriage for good. Within existing education, health, and democracy and governance programs the U.S. supports in Bangladesh and elsewhere, it should prioritize funding that aims at systemic change.

More important, President Obama and his government should press on a political level for Bangladesh to do more to end child marriage. For starters, they should try to talk Sheikh Hasina out of lowering the age of marriage for girls and urge her to make the age of marriage 18 for both women and men.

As time slips by, another generation of Bangladeshi girls is being lost to child marriage. The U.S. can do more to help — and should.

Watch: Short film on the epidemic of child marriage in Bangladesh

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