We must radically reimagine girls’ rights
What would you consider to be a good life for a little girl? Would she be safe? Healthy? Would she have a roof over her head and food in her stomach? Would she be free from exploitation and abuse?
So far, I think everyone would agree that these are very basic rights that should be enjoyed not just by girls, but by every citizen in a democratic country. But unfortunately for Bangladeshi girls, even in 2023, there are a number of these very basic rights that we are still unable – and perhaps unwilling – to afford to them.
Should girls have education? Should they have sexual and reproductive rights? Do they have the right to refuse marriage? Do we respect their right to refuse, to give and to take away consent? Do they have bodily autonomy? What about agency, independence, and free will?
Of course, in reality, these are not simple things to achieve, and the situation is not so black and white. When trapped in poverty, struggling to recover from one climate-induced disaster after another, with the threat of sexual violence hanging over the heads of girls across the country, one can hardly pretend to have the luxury of choice. Often, the choices are child marriage, child labour, poverty or violence.
However, it also cannot be denied that the very same choices that even the most deprived boys and men are often faced with are simply not available to girls and women in similar situations. Nowhere is this contrast more stark than in the case of child marriages in Bangladesh.
According to a Unicef report from May, which pulled data from the Bangladesh Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2019, more than 51 percent of young women in the country were married in their childhood. This means that the country now potentially holds 38 million women and girls who were married before the age of 18. Among them, 13 million were married before the age of 15. This makes Bangladesh the country with the highest prevalence of child marriage in South Asia, and the eighth highest prevalence in the world.
Another report on child marriage from Bangladesh Mahila Parishad (BMP), which collected data from over 2,000 people in 37 districts from 2018 to 2021, found that 53 percent of the girls in question were forced to marry due to family and societal pressures. While there is no denying that poverty is still one of the greatest drivers of child marriage, instead of dealing with the circumstances – like natural disasters and gender-based violence – that are making our girls vulnerable, we tend to opt for the "easy" solution of marriage for the sake of economic solvency and safety. The fact that the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 2017 actually allows for child marriage under "special circumstances" is an example of this.
Traditional notions of honour, with "modesty" being the most valued asset owned by any woman or girl in the country, only make the situation worse. In our society, too many still consider "love marriages" and "affairs" to be morally more egregious than marital rape and teen pregnancies. While being forced into marriage is the worst case scenario, we cannot deny that in almost every aspect of a girl's life in Bangladesh – whether she is trying to participate in sports or use public transport – her "virtue" is constantly being scrutinised, effectively creating another layer of obstacles in her path to a normal life. And when it comes to placing these barriers, it is not just families and communities, but every section of our patriarchal society that is complicit. For example, according to the aforementioned BMP survey, 39 percent of child marriages happened with false birth certificates, and in 40 percent of those cases, union parishad, municipal corporation and other local government body members were complicit. Kazis and notaries were also directly responsible.
While Bangladesh has a National Action Plan to Eliminate Child Marriage by 2030, which holds a number of lofty strategies that commit to justice, accountability, positive social values and norms, and the empowerment of adolescents, the reality is that there is a significant gap between our ambitions and our actions. In Digital Bangladesh, we have still not managed to properly digitise marriage registration, which would make it harder to falsify documents for child marriages.We want the future generations to take their fates into their own hands, but we are not willing to provide them with the sexual health education that would allow them to make informed decisions about their future. We believe in the constitutionally guaranteed gender equality, but we do not believe in women's right to inheritance, even though greater financial control would reduce their dependence on marriage as a means to economic stability.
Research suggests that child marriage begins to decline among those with at least 10 years of schooling, and prevalence falls below 50 percent among those with at least 12 years of schooling. At the same time, awareness and education campaigns in communities can also play a role in discouraging child marriage. Given this evidence, one would expect that the administration's first priority would be to ensure universal access to education.
Alongside high costs, a significant barrier here is the sexual harassment faced by girls and young women in educational institutions. In 2021, a national-level study from Plan International Bangladesh revealed that 73.8 percent of girls and women had faced such abuse. Yet, most schools have no functioning anti-sexual harassment cells or complaint committees to deal with this, despite there being clear directives from the High Court.
This does not only reflect a general apathy towards improving the lives of girls in Bangladesh, it demonstrates that those who are responsible for improving their lives are yet to take the first simple step of acknowledging that our girls are human beings with agency, not just vessels holding their families' and communities' reputations. It is clear that before we can take any real action in dealing with child marriage, there has to be a radical shift in how we as a nation perceive the rights of girls and women. This is necessary for us to finally see child marriage for what it is – not a tool to protect the "honour" of our young girls, but a form of sexual violence.
Shuprova Tasneem is a journalist. Her X handle is @ShuprovaTasneem
Views expressed in this article are the author's own.
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