Bangladesh has the dubious distinction of having the highest child marriage rate in Asia and third highest in the world. The prospect of the country's national development might be seriously undermined if such high rates cannot be scaled down significantly and urgently.
64% of all women aged 20-24 in Bangladesh were married before the age of 18 – finds the latest research titled “Child Marriage in Bangladesh: Findings of National Survey” commissioned by Plan International Bangladesh and carried out by icddr,b. What does it mean for the country's development and the population growth?
Here are some of the research findings that will help to answer that question.
Stunting is closely linked to child marriage. The first 1000 days from conception is the most critical period when a child's cognitive ability and immune system take shape. But when born of a child mother whose body is not fully developed, the child is much more likely to suffer from nutritional deficiency in those 1000 days, critically raising its chance of becoming stunted. Which means a significant part of the future generation with impaired cognitive ability and weakened immune system. We need healthy and intelligent youths to reach the full potential of the country's development prospect, not a weak and half-witted generation.
Child mortality rate and maternal health, two critical indicators of development, are also negatively affected by child marriage. Consider these findings: When a mother is under 18, her child is 60 percent more likely to die in its first year of life than a baby born to a mother above 18; and girls under 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s.
There are more ways child marriage impedes Bangladesh's development. Child marriage is one of the main factors for girl students dropping out from school. It means millions of girls with reduced ability to earn for themselves and their families and to contribute to national development process. One consequence of this is the cycle of poverty being sustained across generations. Girls getting married younger also means a significantly downsized working population and an appalling waste of potential resources. One finding of the Plan research is particularly by relevant here : 86% of women with no education were married before 18 years of age, compared to 26% of women who had completed secondary or higher education, shows the survey.
The scenario would be so much different if girls stay at school longer than they are doing now. Girls not Brides, an international alliance working to end child marriage, points out that for every year a girl stays in secondary school the eventual wages will be 15 to 25 percent higher. But , most importantly, when a woman earns she invests on an average 90 percent of her income into her family compared to only 30-40 percent by men .
Child marriage as a development challenge has been largely absent in both the national development agenda and the donors' priority list. It is not difficult to see why. Seen from donors' perspective, child marriage does not create the same kind of appeal, as, for instance, food scarcity or HIV/AIDs inspires. The latter ones can be life threatening and have an immediate impact while the consequences of child marriage becomes visible only in the long term. It has to changed. The country's development agenda has to be reset and child marriage prevention has to be placed among the primary objectives, as opposed to a secondary or tertiary objective subsumed under educational or health initiatives.
And there are signs of such a shift taking place in focus. The recent years have seen increasingly greater attention paid to stopping child marriage. Most encouragingly, the High-level Panel of the UN on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, appointed to design a framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals, recommended for including child marriage as a key negative indicator of girls' and women's empowerment. Both the state and non-state development organisations have to consolidate this new found interest around eliminating child marriage and sustain this momentum until Bangladesh sees its name written in the list of countries with the lowest rates of child marriage.
The writer is Director, Communications and Public Relations, Plan International Bangladesh.