A SENSE of social insecurity has been a cause of child marriage, especially in Bangladesh. In many rural areas, parents still fear the social stigma of having girls aged above 18 years staying at home. Others fear crimes such as rape, which not only would be a traumatic hangover but might lead to less acceptance of any girl as a bride if she becomes a victim of such a crime.
Another fear is that an unmarried girl may engage in illicit relationships, or elope causing a permanent social blemish to her siblings, or that the impoverished family may find it difficult to get bachelors for grown-up girls in their own social stratum.
Such fears and social pressures are usually looked upon as cardinal causes that lead to child marriage. In these areas, extreme poverty makes daughters an economic burden on the family, which, as most parents think, can be relieved by their early marriage, to the benefits of the family as well as the girl herself. Poor parents, thus, often view marriage as a means to ensure their daughter’s financial security and to reduce the
economic burden of a growing adult on the family. Providing a girl with a dowry at her marriage by her parents is an antiquated practice which still continues in some parts of Bangladesh. This requires parents to bestow property on the marriage of a daughter, which is often an economic challenge for many families. The difficulty to save and preserve wealth for dowry is, therefore, a common predicament for the parents of a girl.
These difficulties also press families to betroth their girl, irrespective of her age, as soon as they have the resources at hand to pay the dowry. We have discussed the common causes that often compel parents to carry out child marriage defying a law that stipulates punishment for contracting early marriage. Now, the legal age for marriage is 21 for boys and 18 for girls.
One must remember that child marriage and adolescent pregnancy are related issues. That Bangladesh ranks third in the world and first in Asia with regard to adolescent pregnancy, as said in the World Population Report 2013 launched by the United Nations Population Fund at the Sonargaon Hotel in the capital Dhaka some days ago, is a matter of dubious distinction, and thus worrisome too, for the country as it is testimony to a foolhardy approach of a section of parents towards their daughters’ marriages.
New Age reported, quoting the country director of the Population Council at the report launch as saying, ‘In Bangladesh about 17 per cent of girls get married before reaching 15 while most of them give birth to two children before reaching 18 years.’ Another chilling piece of information from the report is that ‘198 pregnant mothers die while giving birth in every one lakh pregnant mothers in the country. And most of them are adolescent mothers.’
It is needless to say that early marriage and adolescent pregnancy, especially when they concern girl, contributing to a high mortality rate alongside neonatal mortality and malnutrition, should be identified as a major impediment to our achievement of SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) — goals that include the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, improvement in education, the promotion of gender equality, improvement in health and fight against diseases.
Without any doubt, besides illiteracy, lack of awareness, poor socio-economic condition and lack of proper healthcare service, early marriage and teenage pregnancy are the major reasons for high maternal mortality rate and neonatal deaths in the country. Although a large segment of expecting mothers in Bangladesh still does not get the required care during pregnancy in terms of getting sufficient nutritious food, majority of these mothers who are in their teens suffer from acute malnutrition and various other ailments as some 45 per cent of mothers in the country are malnourished. Consequent upon it, they give birth to underweight babies, if they do not die. But most of these babies are victims of growth retardation, an outcome of chronic malnutrition. It is no wonder that an estimated 45 per cent children, to be more specific over 7 million children, under the age of five are affected by growth retardation. If the situation remains unchanged, Bangladesh will never be able to have a healthy, strong and intelligent population in future as malnutrition affects the natural growth and physical and mental development of children badly. Simply put, this is essentially the fallout of child marriage and adolescent pregnancy.
Apart from causing an adverse impact on an adolescent mother’s health, physical and mental, early marriage also deprives her of her fundamental human rights. Although the legal age for marriage is 21 for boys and 18 for girls and there is a law that stipulates punishment for contracting early marriage, what makes child marriage a regular practice in rural areas and urban slums is a matter to be taken into serious consideration. It is the absence of social security for girls and poverty and a social norm that supports child marriage along with related practices such as the dowry system that bolster this practice in poor and less educated sections of society. It has been discussed above.
However, in order to reduce the rate of adolescent pregnancy, it is imperative to take decisive steps to stop early marriage. Of course, a heightened social awareness and stringent enforcement of the law are expected to reduce the vulnerability of children, especially girls, to early marriage; fight against it should also be waged on political and economic fronts. Women constitute almost a half of the population of the country and by educating and empowering them with a view to integrating them into the mainstream workforce, the government can change this hopeless scenario.
Again, one needs to realise that the restoration of gender balance in social and economic activities needs to be addressed adequately for the reduction of poverty, on the one hand, and the resolution of the crisis in power relation between men and women, on the other hand. While addressing the gender gap does have a moral binding for the government in order to ensure equal opportunities for all citizens, women’s education and empowerment also have a strong rationale that cannot be dispensed with in economic terms. In order to promote their social positions and buttress it, they need to be empowered although more than 48 years after the adoption of the constitution, which enshrines equal rights and status for every citizen. A section of women are still deprived of their fundamental rights and living an accursed existence because of the negligence and indifference of successive governments.
The resolution of the crisis in power relation between men and women can play an important role in ensuring women’s total development and guaranteeing their social security as a whole. It can help women to think independently and make them aware of negative consequences of early marriage and adolescent pregnancy. But greater responsibility, to make it happen, lies with the government. It needs to come up with a comprehensive strategy and a multi-pronged approach to address the issue, apart from enforcing the relevant law more stringently. The ethical section of society should also raise its voice against child marriage without any delay as it is a social malaise that erodes our social fabric insidiously.
Khurshid Anwar is an assistant editor at New Age.
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