Nowhere else in Asia are so many girls married under the age of 18 as in Bangladesh. Terre des Hommes is not only working to prevent this, but is one of the few NGOs in the country to help girls who are already married and live in isolation.
When the request for her daughter’s hand in marriage arrived, Samira’s mother accepted it reluctantly. She didn’t really want her daughter to marry at a young age. But there was great poverty at home and a strong man was needed in the family, because Samira's father has mental problems and cannot look after his family. And so the girl entered into a forced marriage at the age of 14 to a husband 21 years older than her.
Samira’s story is not unusual. Child marriages are a common occurrence in Bangladesh. And although getting married under the age of 18 is prohibited by Bengali law, child brides are still accepted. Various studies show that almost a third of girls marry before their 15th birthday. And two out of three girls are married off before the reach the age of 18. They often end up in an isolated and adult life for which they are neither physically nor mentally ready.
With the ‘IMAGE’ project Terre des Hommes offers help to this group of young girls, and provides the ‘lost’ generation of child brides with a powerful voice for a better life..
It is noteworthy that at 65 per cent the number of child marriages in Bangladesh far exceeds the surrounding countries in South Asia, where the average is 46 per cent. As in the other countries in the South Asian region, poverty plays a major role with Bengali child brides. Marrying off an adolescent girl is seen as one mouth less to feed, particularly in the poorer remote northern districts. But the main reasons for the high number of child brides in Bangladesh are the traditional views on gender roles and the traditional power balance between men and women.
These views are deeply embedded in Bengali culture: girls need to marry as quickly as possible, bear children and look after the household. Boys must particularly complete their studies and then find a good job. The parents view the marriage as a guarantee of a good future for their daughters.
1 in 3 girls in Bangladesh marry before their 15th birthday
Many child brides also become mothers at a young age. Carrying and giving birth to a child before the body is fully mature leads to substantial risks, especially if there is a lack of medical care during pregnancy. As a result many babies are stillborn or the young mothers die in childbirth. The marriage also makes the girls, often raised with the belief that women are subordinate, entirely dependent on the husband. After the wedding they live with his family. Uneducated, young and isolated, they look after their children and the household.
This cut-off existence often results in young brides being the victim of domestic violence, sexual abuse, neglect, humiliation and threats. They do not share their sorrow with anyone. The young mothers pass on existing traditions: the likelihood that their daughters will also be married off young is very great. And so the vicious circle of poverty and the subordination of women are maintained.
Public outrage against child marriages has increased in recent years, both at home and abroad. Organisations like Terre des Hommes have been campaigning for years to prevent girls from marrying young. The government has also indicated that it is taking preventative steps against this phenomenon, including the flimsy promise from Bengali Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to really finally stamp out child marriage by 2041.
But one group within society who are forgotten by many and are almost invisible are the current millions of girls who have been married off and live in isolation. In order to provide this vulnerable group with a voice and offer them the help they need, Terre des Hommes has developed the ‘IMAGE’ project together with local partner organisations and support from the Dutch government.
In Kurigram, Gaibandha and Nilphamari - three poorer regions of Bangladesh - 4,500 girls who married young are learning to stand up for their rights and make their own choices within their relationship. Choices about whether or not to get pregnant, and above all when, and the decision to attend and complete education. The girls are also provided with medical and psychological care within this project where necessary. With its focus on young girls who are already married, ‘IMAGE’ is unique of its kind within Bangladesh.
The child brides are particularly unaccustomed to expressing their feelings, or indicating when they disagree with something. Within the project the girls are learning to play an active role. To express what they want, and particularly what they don’t want. They are being given the opportunity to control their own lives with the aid of training courses. The girls are able to record their own story: their experiences of the marriage, their physical and mental pain and the loneliness behind the closed doors of their husband’s family.
In order to ensure that ‘IMAGE’ is also supported within the families and communities, the project also works to raise awareness amongst husbands and their families, parents and other stakeholders. Terre des Hommes’ partners are well-known in the communities and know how to approach these groups. They are invited to take part in workshops and training courses in an appropriate and sensitive way. Hence there is a specific training course for husbands which deals with preventing abuse and violence within the marriage and in which the general subordinate position of women within families and communities is discussed.
Samira (now 15) was married a year ago. Unlike most child brides, she still lives at home and stays with her husband from time to time. Her mother wants her to look after husband but also complete her studies. Samira, her mother and her husband have attended training courses on the dangers of child marriages, sexual rights and preventing violence against girls. Samira’s mother now recognises that it was not good to marry off her daughter so young. She does not want to allow Samira’s younger sister (10) to get married before she’s 18. And Samira herself has decided not to get pregnant for the time being.