Social and economic implications
What should be the ideal life for a young girl? She should be in school, healthy and happy; her life devoid of any major responsibilities. Unfortunately, many girls never get to experience this kind of life due to adolescent pregnancy associated with child marriage. For many people, the notion of 'adolescent pregnancy' will immediately evoke concerns regarding physical well-being of young girls. However these problems are not just limited within the sphere of health but goes on to a broader terrain where it is treated as an issue that has numerous social and economic implications hindering the development of a country.
Even though Total Fertility Rate (TFR) has decreased from 6.3 children per woman in 1975 to 2.3 children per woman in 2011, the notion of adolescent pregnancy still continues across the country. According to UNICEF, 66 percent of girls are married by age 18 and 50 percent of pregnancies occur by the age of 18 years in the country. The period of adolescence is a crucial one- the opportunities and choices that a girl is exposed to will not only affect herself, but her family, society and economy in the years to come.
In Bangladesh, a web of factors – including many social, economic, cultural, and psychological causes come into play which result in adolescent marriage and pregnancy to continue year after year. Poverty is one of the main causes. When parents of young girls find it difficult to make ends meet, they look at marriage as a window by which the family and the daughter can escape from poverty and be financially secure. The concept of dowry is prevalent especially in rural Bangladesh and poses as another economic factor that pushes many families to marry-off their daughters early. Parents encourage early marriage out of fear that the dowry price will increase as their daughter ages. In many cases especially in rural Bangladesh, society can look down upon families where daughters are not married off early; such societal and psychological factors can also put pressure on parents to marry their daughter off early. Soon after the wedding, it is an accepted norm that the young girl will start bearing children. The decision of whether or not to procreate seldom depends on the wife due to a significant power imbalance between the adolescent girls and their male counterparts. In many cases, violence is inflicted upon these young girls if they refuse to concede to the husbands' wishes.
Research suggests that long-term demographic effects of adolescent fertility may include larger family sizes since the timing of a first birth is usually an indicator for future fertility patterns. When a family is already struggling financially, an increase in the size of the family will push the family into poverty. Young girls in those families are married off early as well and the problem of adolescent pregnancy continues unabated for generations. Even though the legal age of marriage is 18 years for girls adolescent marriage still continues implying that the legal system is not effective enough to protect the rights of these young girls.
Adolescent pregnancy impedes a girl's education and future prospects to function as an economically active member of the society. Although net enrolment rates are higher for girls than boys in both primary and secondary levels of education, dropout rates are worrying. According to Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics (BANBEIS), dropout rate for girls in secondary level stands at 54 percent indicating that 54 percent of all girls who enroll in class VI, drop out of school by the time they reach class X. In fact drop-out rates for girls start increasing from class VII; many girls leave school without completing the secondary education cycle as families want them to stop education and get married. This translates into a huge loss of public investment as public money is being spent to educate these young girls. World Health Organization (WHO) identifies education as a major factor which can protect girls against adolescent pregnancy; higher the number of years of schooling, fewer the early pregnancies. Health complications of mothers and children due to adolescent pregnancy lead to diversion of resources into healthcare. Lack of education translates into less income and reduced earning opportunities for these young women. It is also seen in many cases that husbands divorce their adolescent wives who suffer from adolescent pregnancy related health complications. In those cases, the adolescent girls are put in a dire situation: on one hand they lose out on education and on the other they now have to support themselves and their children. The social and economic consequences for them are now worse than ever.
Due to a decline in total fertility rate, the country is experiencing a 'youth bulge' in the population structure. In order to reap the benefits of this 'demographic dividend', Bangladesh needs to ensure education of adolescents. This involves empowering adolescent girls by first eradicating adolescent marriage and pregnancy.
The writer is the Head of Research at The Daily Star and can be reached at [email protected]