At the start of 2015, I spent several months volunteering in Bangladesh with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and International Citizen Service (ICS), working with a very poor and socially conservative community in the northwest of the country.
The community, Pairabondh, faces many challenges, not least significant gender inequality. The bazaar and teashops were dominated by men, while women worked all day collecting the potato harvest in the fields, preparing food, doing laundry and tending to the animals. Sixty-five percent of women are unemployed and nearly half the female population cannot read or write.
While I was there, my colleagues and I were invited to the wedding of the eldest daughter of one of the host-families I had grown close to. The female volunteers were invited to participate in a pre-wedding ceremony that involves painting your body with turmeric.
This should have been a cause of excitement and happiness for us all. However, at 15 years old, the bride, Mukhti, was under-age. The legal age for marriage in Bangladesh is 18 for girls and 21 for boys. Despite our affection for the family, none of us wanted to condone an illegal marriage and, ultimately, we turned down the invitation. The marriage went against the very goals of our project, which sought to empower women by building handicrafts cooperatives to provide them with employment opportunities.
Bangladesh holds the world’s worst record on child marriage, and the problem is widespread: according to UNICEF, nearly two-thirds of girls are married before the age of 18. More than a quarter of girls are married before they reach 15.
Poverty and a traditional patriarchal society combine, particularly in rural areas, to keep the rate of child marriage elevated despite national legislation. Young girls are often considered an economic burden to their families; prevailing cultural attitudes mean that it is still difficult for girls to work and earn an income. For families, marrying their daughters to older men in different families is often a survival strategy. Dowry payments, which are a relatively new but growing phenomenon in Bangladesh, are lower when girls are younger, acting as another incentive for families to marry their daughters at a young age. Such marriages are also a way for families to build their social status and to protect girls' sexuality in an environment that is perceived to be unsafe — sexual harassment and assault are all too common and even the rumour of an inappropriate relationship can permanently damage a girl's reputation, that of her family, and her future prospects.
Early marriage has serious consequences for girls. It significantly increases the chances of dropping out of school, limiting their future choices. Of 28 pupils who had gone on to a local high school the previous year, a local primary school teacher told me, 14 had dropped out within a year: seven girls, all due to early marriage, and seven boys, who had gone to find work in the garment factories.
Girls who marry young face intense pressure to become pregnant; in Bangladesh, it is estimated that a third of girls aged between 15 and 19 are mothers or are pregnant. Pregnancy at this age carries significant health risks, including higher maternal and infant mortality. Teenage mothers are twice as likely to die in childbirth, and babies born to mothers under 14 are 50 percent more likely to die than those born to mothers aged over 20, a situation compounded by the poor levels of health care in the country, where less than a quarter of births are attended by a medical professional. In all, around 12,000 women die every year here simply trying to bring life into this world.
Eliminating early marriage in such communities presents a real challenge to the Bangladeshi authorities and to the numerous development organizations operating in the country. Legislation has been an important step — although there is now alarming pressure to lower the legal age for girls — but it has not changed social attitudes. Even in middle class and educated families, it is highly unusual for people of either sex to remain unmarried after the age of 25. The successful eradication of early marriage will require a grassroots approach, working community by community. From my own experience, parents are desperately trying to do the best thing for their daughters. It is only by educating parents across a community about the implications of marrying so young that we will start to see a shift in attitudes.
Bangladesh is, however, making progress, and gender equality is a national priority alongside economic development. Girls now outnumber boys in primary and secondary schools. Women are also making gains in the formal labour market, thanks to participation in the garment industry and the micro-credit revolution that was started right here in Bangladesh. Twenty percent of seats in the national parliament are reserved for women, which is below the global average of 25 percent but higher than the regional average of 18 percent, according to UN Women. Women lead both of Bangladesh’s two main political parties, and the country has had a female leader since the early 1990s.
I met so many wonderful women during my time in Bangladesh. From the young women who volunteered at a community health clinic to the old lady who owned a small tea shack to prevent her daughters-in-law from neglecting her to point of starvation, they were a constant reminder of both the strength of women struggling against poverty and the entrenched gender inequality in Bangladesh — none more so than Romana, one of the entrepreneurs our project was supporting.
Romana was a young girl when her family told her she was getting married. However, she managed to resist the pressure and convince her family to allow her to continue her education. It took great courage to stand up to her family and defend her right to education. She is now in her early twenties and married to a man who is very proud and supportive of her. She is a quiet and unassuming woman when you first meet her, but I was continually impressed by her confidence and determination. Her business will help provide employment to a dozen marginalized women and young people, hopefully giving them the opportunity to improve their lives.
The path to gender equality is a long and slow one but putting incomes into the hands of women is one step on that journey; it results in better nutrition and education for their children, and gives them more social capital and decision-making power in their families and communities.