Blog: Preventing Child Marriage in Bangladesh

I had heard a lot about Swapon Kumar Das, an Italian speaking Bangladeshi and was keen to meet him and get to know DALIT NGO, the organisation he leads. DALIT is a small, for Bangladeshi standards, NGO committed to promoting the rights of the Dalit population in the South West of Bangladesh (Khulna Division). The Dalit are the lowest caste in the Hindu caste system, also referred to as the “untouchable caste” or “outcasts”. They represent a very marginalised and deprived minority in Bangladesh, where the dominant religion is Islam. ICDI is partnering with DALIT NGO in the five year Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs funded programme, called HER CHOICE, which is designed to combat child marriage.

On first meeting at Jessore Airport, Swapon comes across as calm and unassuming. He doesn’t seem at all fazed when he is quietly taken aside by a local police officer who advises him that it is best to keep his foreign guests out of public view. Since the 1 July 2016 attack on a cafe in the diplomatic quarter of Dhaka, in which 20 hostages, most of them foreigners, were killed, security precautions, especially those involving foreigners, have increased. On the bus ride from Jessore Airport to the city of Khulna, and throughout the whole week moving from place to place, we are bathed in a lush green landscape, rich vivid green rice fields, wild fennel, banana trees and water everywhere – colour schemes and textures that are only possible to see in South East Asia.  

The sound scape is dominated by blasts of car horns, and quick intakes of breath of me and my travelling companions, ICDI colleague Giulia Cortellesi, and Winny Coster from the University of Amsterdam, as the driver of our car deftly dodges motorised rickshaws, pilled high buses, pedestrians and the many cyclists.  

Child Marriage Should Not Be The Response to Eve Teasing

One of the purposes of this visit is to share up-to-date research on child and youth development and discuss together how this can inform strategies that are being put in place to combat child marriage in Bangladesh, whose child marriage rates are one of the highest in the world. In the lingo of the HER CHOICE programme, this is a Linking and Learning event. The linking part of the first day of the workshop involves finding connections between knowledge about childhood and child-rearing gleaned from centuries of Hindu philosophy and Muslim teaching, with the science of child development. We also make other connections across NGOs in Bangladesh: the participants in the workshop are five staff members from The Hunger Project (THP), another implementing organisation in the HER CHOICE programme, eight staff members of DALIT NGO and two Union members, locally elected representatives.

Making links across generations is also a feature of the workshop: three of the HER CHOICE adolescent girls club leaders are also participants in the workshop. Their big concern is how to convince their parents and the other elders in their communities, that child marriage should not be the response to eve teasing, one of the main factors which has been linked to child marriage in rural Bangladesh. The phenomenon of eve teasing covers quite a wide range of incidents and encounters. Along with accounts of serious sexual harassment cases, examples include also seemingly harmless jokes, invitations or attempts to engage in a conversation. Eve teasing is an issue which ICDI colleagues already explored four years ago. 

Coming from a researcher’s perspective, Winny’s role during the week is to discuss the findings of the baseline study for Her Choice with the staff of DALIT NGO and THP. Data for the baseline study was collected before the programme activities began. Now with the findings to hand, it will be possible to adapt programme activities so that they are more effective.

As to the learning component of the workshop, there were many issues to grapple with. As an answer to the question about whether the universal average child exists, which we read about in classic child development texts, a forthright denial is passionately expressed by Aparna, a community development officer working for DALIT NGO. She tells us that as a girl born in a Dalit Bangladeshi family, where her brothers were fed more than she was, and were sent to school in preference to her, she certainly didn’t have the same developmental and learning opportunities as the so-called ‘average’ child.  Being both Dalit and a girl, her chances in life were dramatically reduced. It is clear that Aparna’s own resilience, coupled with the support she received as a young teenager from DALIT NGO, has had a big influence on making her the confident and articulate young woman she is today. The inequalities between girls and boys in Bangladesh was a recurrent theme all week.

Later in the day, my colleague Giulia discusses the intricacies of neuroscience and brain development.  What captures the attention of the group is both the rapid transformation in the brain in the first three years of life and what is going on in the teenage brain.  The group is introduced to the various functions of the frontal lobe, which is responsible for our planning and reasoning abilities and the amygdala where raw emotions sit. The frontal lobe only fully develops at the end of adolescence, which varies between 16 and 20 years. Before that girls and boys make decisions accessing directly the amygdale, therefore many of their decisions are based on ‘gut’ feelings. With this information to hand, the group concluded that getting married at 14 or 15 years and having the responsibility of parenting a baby soon after in addition to caring for in-laws (newly married girls live with their husband’s family) is a bad idea.  It is neither good for the brain of the new baby nor for the well-being of the child bride who is too young to mother.

Early Marriage Is Not The Answer To Prevent Pregnancy Outside Marriage

The discussions during the day are full of dilemmas, puzzles and some unanswered questions. One such question in my mind is how can a community who worship the child-god Krishna (the Hindu celebration of love, fertility and springtime, Holi, linked to Krishna, coincides with our visit), celebrate the birth of a baby, yet not nurture and feed and support the development and education of their girl babies? I am reminded of the shame being experienced in my own country Ireland linked to the recent grim discovery in unmarked graves of bodies of hundreds of babies and toddlers born to unmarried girls and women in so named ‘Mother and Baby Homes’ between the 1920s and 1960s. 

One of the reasons why so many young Irish men and women got married in their early twenties was this was the only way of having socially accepted sex. Contraception was not easily available until 1970s and 1980s. Today in Bangladesh it is very difficult for unmarried people to access contraception legally, and parents are keen to marry off their daughters early in order to prevent inappropriate relations between them and boys and pregnancy outside marriage (eve teasing being the first sign that this is going to follow) and the subsequent shame on the family. In addition to eve teasing the other major reason for child marriage is poverty: giving birth to a daughter is expensive because of the dowry that needs to be paid to the groom’s family on marriage and girls are considered a financial burden. The older the girl bride is, the more expensive the dowry that needs to be paid. On top of this, comes the fact that the younger the girl bride, the more beautiful she is considered.

We receive an amazingly warm welcome to the two Dalit villages we visited in Keshabpur. Arriving on the last day of the Holi festival, we are showered by flowers and our faces are painted by coloured powder. The groups of teenage girls we meet come across as confident, self-assured and ambitious for themselves. Their dreams for their future range from wanting to be a doctor or an engineer to being a police officer. They also let us know that they are worried about how difficult it is going to be for them to finish secondary school because of their family’s’ lack of money. We don’t have the opportunity to spend much time talking with the boys, but the few we did chat with seemed much shyer, less confident and ambitious than the girls. They don’t have to worry about not being able to go to school. We are curious as to why they have mobile phones and their sisters don’t. The reason we are told by one of them is that their parents trust them to have a phone, but fear that if their girls have phones they will be ‘pestered’ by boys via SMS messaging i.e. digital eve teasing. 

The whole village gathers around to watch the girls perform a play, written by the girls about child marriage. It is based on an actual case of a girl in the village, Nishad, who is married off at 13. The story is a very tragic tale of domestic abuse, a pregnancy that ends in the death of the newborn, abandonment and divorce. There are also light moments in the performance in the girls’ caricatures of village match-makers, which the audience respond to with much laughter.

We later meet Nishad, now an 18 year-old who is quite despondent about her current situation, not able to re-enter education or training and the means to earn money.  What gives her some hope is that by re-enacting her story, the younger teenage girls in her village may be able to prevent the same from happening to them. Before leaving the village, we exploit the presence of the policemen in the village (there to ‘guard’ us foreign visitors) by asking one of the two female police officers to tell her story about how she managed to finish school, and continue to police training college. We hope that maybe a few of the girls in the 200+ audience may be inspired by her example.

Taboos Associated With Menstruation And Intercourse Difficult To Challenge

During the following days we facilitate sessions on sexual development of children and young people and sexual and reproductive health.  It is clear from the discussions that sexuality and sexual health in Bangladesh, of both young people and married adults is associated primarily with problems, such as sexually transmitted diseases, preventing sexual contact, or indeed any social contact between adolescent boys and girls who are not married.  Positive associations such as sexual pleasure or intimacy are not talked about and never referred to.  Recalling their own adolescence, workshop participants talk about their loneliness in trying to make sense of all physical changes in their body as well as their feelings, with no one to talk to.  On this issue, the girls seem to have an advantage over boys, as mothers or grandmothers then and nowadays take time to explain girls’ first period to them.  Though, it seems that discussions between mothers and daughters about sexual health stop at this topic. 

Taboos associated with menstruation and intercourse, which relate to female impurity are deeply ingrained and difficult to challenge, even for the university-educated NGO staff participating in the workshop. More worryingly, and not unique to Bangladesh, is that when it comes to access to health care in general, girls and women are considered second-class citizens, especially in rural areas. In the family, it is the men who make the decisions about girls and women’s health and whether or not they can go to a clinic or hospital. If they do get to a government-funded village health clinic, they will be seen by community health care providers, many of whom have only rudimentary health care training and who have neither the knowledge nor communication skills to talk to young people about their sexual health. 

On the positive side, it is clear that the village health clinics have had two important benefits: an increased awareness of family planning and an increase in contraceptive use, which has lead to a reduction in the national fertility rate from 7 in the 1970s to the current 2.2, and related to this a reduction in newborn and child mortality. Still in Dalit communities, the average number of children per woman is between 4 and 6, showing how access to family planning depends on socio-economic background.

As is usual in ICDI facilitated workshops we have tried to use a mix of learning and teaching approaches: short videos, graphic illustrations, quizzes, discussions, visits to communities…. Although we have been addressing very serious topics we try to do it in an informal and interactive way. As remarked by one of the participants from THP, “we have done SRHR training before, but somehow the ICDI training is different. You have a friendly approach with the participants and there is lots of interaction and I learnt new things from the quizzes and videos”.

We close the training with a quandary, which is to the fore of all of our minds. That is how the staff of both DALIT NGO and THP will be able to pass on all the new perspectives and information about child and youth development and sexual and reproductive health to adolescent girls and boys, their parents and teachers, village health workers and local policy makers and law enforcers in a way that leads to attitudinal and behavioural change.

One of the solutions we discuss is to normalise contact and friendship between unmarried adolescent boys and girls, by providing safe spaces for them to meet, socialise, have fun together. Also, DALIT NGO already have plans to set up adolescent boys clubs, which will provide a safe space for them to talk about sexuality and where the prevalent ‘eve teasing’ can be challenged and where they can get support in fulfilling life and work ambitions. With Swapon and his team in DALIT NGO, we also talk about the needs of young mothers and their children and how tackling child marriage needs to begin in early childhood. None of this will be easy. At the end of the week we leave Bangladesh both hopeful and humbled by the hospitality with which we have been received, but also concerned for the futures of the Dalit girls and boys and young families we have met.

Margaret Kernan, Team Leader Early Years, ICDI

The HER CHOICE programme, which began in 2016, continues until 2021. It is coordinated by Kinderpostzegels, The Hunger Project and ICDI.