Juvenile marriage has long been an issue in many developing countries where poverty, lack of education and strong cultural traditions and religious beliefs exist. It is most prevalent in – however not restricted to South Asia, especially Bangladesh where studies have shown that the practice of juvenile marriage is most common and severe.
Although the legal age of marriage for women in Bangladesh is 18, some girls are married off as young as seven years old mainly as a result of poverty which consumes 55% of the population and also because Bangladesh is a patriarchal society where there overall attitude towards women is “galay atkano kata” which is translated to “the spine of a fish stuck in the throat”.
In the rural areas of Bangladesh, certain cultural traditions must be preserved as they have been present for centuries and also contribute to juvenile marriage as dowry, which mainly exists in patrilineal societies, determines how much the bride’s parents must pay to the in-laws which varies upon the age of the girl. On the surface, it would seems as though Bangladeshis accept this atrocity and feel quite passive towards it as they are aware that juvenile marriage is being practiced but do not take action against it. Is it because human rights are not universal?
Could it be possible that something such as juvenile marriage is overlooked because the vast majority of the population of Bangladesh is not educated and ignorant to such and through intervention, they could benefit from the first world’s input in regards to their sociocultural “issues”? It is evident that juvenile marriage is very common and equally problematic in South Asia and seems to be an issue which is most present in developing countries for varies reasons which are customized to that particular culture and region.
The marriage of a child is illegal in all of the countries in which it takes place and even in spite of actions such as reinforcement of laws opposing to such, juvenile marriage continues, especially in rural, densely populated areas. This is because these societies are anchored by their cultural traditions and beliefs which have been their way of life for centuries, passed down from generation to generation. Bangladesh in particular operates as a patriarchal society and the women, both rural and rban, traditional and modern, are considered the most oppressed in the world because they live in a social system that condones their being granted an inferior status. “After birth, girls are viewed as a burden to the parental house hold, whereas boys are regarded as an asset. ” (White, 1992). The minute they are brought into the world, girls are resented and considered “not valuable” as they cannot provide for their natural families financially and they will not carry out the family name, which is very important in Bangladeshi culture.
Girls are taught as early as childhood that women should always be under men’s control because the common attitude towards women is that they are weak and vulnerable and they are treated as such. In Bangladeshi society, women are unable to support and protect themselves and male guardianship is necessary to prevent possible rape and this is very important because society places the utmost importance on female sexual purity and this cannot be guaranteed if a woman is without a male guardian as 97% of all rape incidents go unreported and women are subject to brutality and even murder if they do not terminate the pregnancy before it is too late.
However, abortions illegal and expensive in Bangladesh and even if a woman can afford to proceed with the termination, they are often malpracticed and result in severe infection, illness and death. Therefore, protection and security is provided (and guaranteed) through marriage and it is also a local belief that younger girls are more obedient and will become devoted to her in-laws’ family more so than her natal family which is logical considering at a young age, the girl would move to her in-law’s and essentially become more attached to her husband’s parents rather than her own.
Girls are also forced to terminate any existing education (if there is any at all) when they get married and are expected to take on house hold responsibilities and cater to her in-laws right away and produce children which often results in failed pregnancies or death as they are too young and malnourished. A UNICEF report says: In many parts of South Asia, due to the poor quality of emergency obstetric care and high levels of malnutrition among young women, particularly anemia and stunting, early marriage presents considerably increased risks to life itself.
Teenage mothers have a 2-5 times greater risk of maternal death than women aged 20-25 years (UNICEF, 2001: 7) It would seem that a simple and logical solution to this problem would be to continue the girls’ education as it would alleviate some of the social pressure in regards to house hold responsibilities and child-rearing and it would also provide them with life skills and knowledge which could possibly generate a new attitude towards women without disrupting the deeply rooted nature of Bangladeshi cultural traditions. Opportunities for young mothers to continue their education or to work are often limited because they have little access to resources and are responsible for child-rearing and house hold tasks. The women married at early age are more likely than those who are married off as adults to have early, frequent and unplanned pregnancies, typically from lack of contraceptive use. The children of teenage mothers experience serious health consequences as well. A child born to a teenage mother is twice more likely to die before his/her first birth day than the child of a woman in her twenties.
If they survive these infants tend to have higher rates of low birth weight, premature birth and infant mortality than those born to older mothers. ” (Kamal, 2011: 218). It is evident that there are very harsh social, psychological and health consequences for both women and their children which occur when a girl is married too young, juvenile marriage is not only recognized as a human rights violation, but it is also a barrier to individual and social development.
As mentioned above, girls are forced to terminate their education and in most cases they have not even reached secondary level education which shows in the literacy rate among men and women which is not surprising – 38. 1% rate for women, versus the 55. 6% rate for men. Considering Bangladesh’s dense population, this is quite a significant amount of women who have received education. A study by Farah Chowdhury of the Rajshahi Univeristy in Bangladesh shows the education level of men and women in the village of Chamrabo which is in the Narshingdi District (located 30 miles from Dhaka, the capital city).
Her studies indicate that: Out of a population of 261, 130 men and 131 women not including children under six years of age, fifteen of the men and 25 of the women were illiterate. Most of the villagers, both make and female, have had at least minimal schooling. Sixty-two men and 70 women completed primary education (Grades 1-5); and 24 men and 18 women secondary education (Grades 6-10). Five men had a secondary School Certificate (SSC), four a Higher Secondary Certificate (HSC) and one a college degree. Only one woman had an SSC and none a HSC or college degree (Chowdhury, 2004: 247). Poverty is ften a determining factor regarding education and it can be linked to the age at which a girl is married; if a family is poverty stricken, they will marry off their daughter(s) as early as possible to decrease the size of the dowry.
In some cases this age could be as young as seven or younger, according to Chowdhury, the belief in some Bangladeshi villages is that seven is a suitable age for girls to marry and that girls of nine are already old and may be subject to abuse or harassment due to shame they might inflict on themselves and their families as a result of not being desirable for marriage. Naturally parents prefer to marry off their daughters before the girls are regarded as old. ” “… Furthermore, young girls are thought to have greater sexual and procreative power than older girls, and to be less risk of miscarriage. ” (Chowdhury, 2004: 247). Although the rate of poverty in Bangladesh has decreased over the recent years, 55% of the population lives below the poverty line and among those, 27% live in extreme poverty. Most of those affected by poverty live in rural and semi urban areas where they cannot afford to send their children to school.
However, the problem goes both ways as the Bangladeshi education system also faces challenges such as funding, inflexibility, insufficient ratio of skilled teachers to schools and lack of resources. In recent years, NGO’s like ‘Because I am a Girl’ and ‘Human Rights and Education Program for Women (HERP)’ recognized the deficit of education facilities and have stepped in to rehabilitate the education sector of Bangladesh to create an accessible and affordable system which does not discriminate against women but in fact encourages the enrollment female students by employing female teachers. NGO schools are well resourced, with a network that extends to the remotest part of the country. There schools facilitate the integration of students from economically and socially vulnerable communities, operate at times that are suitable for students (many of whom work during the day or at specific times of the year), offer small class size (with teacher-student ratios of one to thirty), and ensure and interactive learning environment. ” (Arndt, Hastings, … & Woods, 2005).
Since patriarchal societies such as Bangladesh are very concerned about a women’s personality as they see it as a challenge and do almost anything to contain it, it seems quite logical that girls are pulled out of school early due to marriage as it disables them from knowing anything else outside of their inferiority. It also helps to diffuse the rate at which self-discovery happens by marrying the girls off at a young age which decreases their future opportunities of education and furthermore, they become more submissive to their husbands and simply accept the life they are forced to live as they do not know any other way.
Their great, great grandmothers did the same and it is a tradition that has been passed down by many generations. However, with this system in place there is some hope. The educational sector’s main goal and aspiration is to break the cycle of dependent women and rid them of their inferior status. Through education, women can learn how to be self-reliant and resourceful, they will be taught personal development and will understand their bodies as well as become aware of their rights as women.
This is interesting because these opportunities could spark a new generation of women who will not tolerate their subjective social roles which could lead to protests and other actions against gender exploitation and oppression. It is not something that would happen overnight of course, possibly over a few decades women would start to realize their worth and become bold enough to speak out and protest but even still, education alone cannot change the rich, traditional cultural soil in which the beliefs of society is so firmly planted.
Knowledge will empower the women of Bangladesh but it will not change their sociocultural position and it does not change the existing issue of poverty. Even if the education is provided and accessible, the issue of poverty is still present and as long as poverty exists, poor parents will be inclined to marry their daughters as early as possible to decrease the amount of the dowry owed to the groom’s family.
As discussed above, traditional cultural values and beliefs outweigh all other potential blames to child marriage even though poverty seems to be the main cause, it is simply a scratch at the surface to the bigger picture. It would seem as though Bangladeshis practicing juvenile marriage are doing so because they feel it is a divine command and in not doing so they are exempt from society and victims of harassment, dishonor and shame.
However, if we examine the situation carefully, we will see that the locals are not marrying their daughters off as young as possible simply to decrease the dowry, it is mostly because of their traditional beliefs about fertility in relation to age. Therefore, juvenile marriage cannot be directly linked to poverty because the strong influence of local beliefs is almost certainly the main cause as ethnic communities are inclined to trust their beliefs as well as respect and preserve their traditions.
The locals of rural Bangladesh have relied on the same superstitions, methods and practices for centuries, it is deeply embedded in their culture and essentially it is the glue that holds them all together. Bangladeshi officials are aware that juvenile marriage is taking place in the rural areas and they recognize this as a punitive crime but they do not risk interfering or tampering with such rituals as it could lead to an even bigger problem such as the collapse of a society.
It is a local belief that if a woman’s marriage is prevented or interrupted, the woman has been a victim of sorcery and she must be exiled from the community. In most cases these women are children and they are taken outside of the village to remote areas, blindfolded and left there with no food or means of survival which results in death. The girl’s family is said to be subject to harassment, and if they have other children, they will be considered socially condemned and will not be desirable by other in the village to marry.
It is also believed that the parents will inherit the age of the girl in years of bad luck, example: if the child was five years old, the parents will inherit five years of bad luck. So, Bangladesh will continue to suffer as a result of such an intricately woven culture, everything is connected and affected by their belief system which makes for a fragile society. In conclusion, juvenile marriage is a violation of human rights and has physical, intellectual, psychological and emotional implications for the young brides.
It deprives girls of their childhood and adolescence where crucial development occurs and this is important for the promotion of good mental and sexual health. From an outsider’s point of view, the issue of juvenile marriage seems easy enough to “fix” with a simple prescription of proper education and the implication of Western knowledge and sociocultural values but it is not that easy to undo centuries of rich and complex cultural values, in other words, we cannot use the ”Band-Aid” approach to cover up an issue which needs to be addressed internally. So how can we prevent juvenile marriage?
An obvious solution is to change the male views and attitudes towards women which can be addressed by including women’s studies and sexual/personal development in the syllabus of primary and higher levels of education. Also, the state should see that sufficient measures are put in place to ensure that women have the same rights and obligations to look after their natural families both financially and physically because if this became a strong social value, then girls would not be considered a burden to their families and this would increase their sociocultural “value”.
Finally, the belief that women are weak and vulnerable is the result of the lack of social security provided for women in Bangladesh so if the state cannot ensure the security of women, then naturally the people (especially the men) of Bangladesh will be reassured in their beliefs of women and that they are in constant need of protection of their male guardians which will further encourage the practice of child marriage.