Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world. It also has one of the lowest rates of birth registration in the world which constrains legal protection against child marriages. Two in three women marry before the legal age of marriage, which is 18 for girls, and one in three women start childbearing before the age of 20. Many parents actively push their daughters into early marriage to avoid stains on the family honour by pre-marital sexual activity. Marrying at a young age and early sexual contact put girls at higher risk of sexual health problems, including HIV.
Many young people in Bangladesh do not have access to adequate information about their sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) because of a strong social and cultural taboo around the issue which causes a pervasive silence. As a result, most adolescents enter into marriage and pregnancy without any adequate preparation. The current national school curriculum contains only minimum information about SRHR and often teachers are reluctant to teach even this.
For the past three years, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance together with HASAB, Bangladesh’s leading NGO focusing on HIV/AIDS and STI-related issues, has been implementing the EC funded project Community Action for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights policies in Asia in four divisions in the country as well as in India. Sylhet, in the north-east, is characterised by large tea plantations where families still work in bonded labour; many are Hindu families who migrated from India in the 1960s and who often face discrimination from other sections of Bengali society.
According to the deputy manager of the country’s oldest tea plantation, the Malnicherra tea estate: “Reducing the percentage of child marriages in the tea gardens is a problem. In Sylhet, the literacy rate is low, some 80% of tea garden people are illiterate.”
It’s no coincidence that countries with a high prevalence of child marriages also tend to have low literacy rates for young women. Increasing the knowledge of Sylhet youth groups on SRHR issues is crucial to young people knowing their rights and Rita, now aged 18, is living proof of why.
“One year back,” she told us, “when my father died, my uncles were very concerned about me, they thought that I was just a girl, that education wasn’t important but that marriage was. Everyone was telling my mother to get me married as my brother would be enough to provide a family income. But I had a different view, I wanted to get educated, to work, so I came here to the youth group and talked to the peer leaders, I explained that I didn’t want to get married yet.
“The peer leaders and HASAB visited my mother and made her understand that even if I’m a daughter, I can feed myself, I can be independent, that I’m equal to my brother. I stood up for myself, I showed my mum our neighbours’ daughters, some had died giving birth, and I told her: Do you want to lose your daughter, let your daughter live, give her a life. Now those other girls have two or three children already and have weak health. As I’m the only daughter my mother agreed as she didn’t want to lose me.
“My life would have been doomed since the boys in the tea plantation estate are not well educated and some have problems with drugs and alcohol. I wouldn’t have been able to cope with it. I’m not thinking about marriage right now, I want to graduate, go abroad, come back here and make a big school for the children. If you don’t have knowledge, you’re born here and die here only knowing one type of green, the colour of the tea plantation.”
The EC project has been particularly ground breaking in Sylhet where HASAB’s implementing partner, the Reliant Women Development Organisation, has succeeded in sensitizing the management of the tea gardens - which act as a state within a state, with their own norms and regulations - and in gaining their support for working with young people from the community there. The fact that they have been able to establish a permanent youth information centre on land given by one of the parents is a landmark achievement and demonstrates the importance of gaining the support of community gatekeepers such as religious leaders and teachers in order for a project dealing with such culturally sensitive issues to flourish.
Roksh Vijaya is the Hindu priest at Rita’s tea plantation. “People here are very religious so at first they thought that talking about sexual health issues was wrong so I was very doubtful, now I see the progress, it’s very good.”
With a third of Bangladesh’s population under the age of 14, empowering young people with the necessary knowledge to understand and be able to voice their rights is just one of many critical elements in the fight against child marriage.