In most cases, marriage in Bangladesh is seen as an economic transaction or strategy for improving capital accumulation through the dowry system. Dowry payments are a traditional custom where goods and money are transferred from the bride's family to the grooms. The practice is widely prevalent despite being illegal under the Bangladesh Dowry Prohibition Act of 1980.
In recent times, dowry demands have escalated, especially during the covid-19 pandemic, and the prime motivations are greed, growing consumerism, materialism, status-seeking, and rising living standards. During the extreme weather events, the correlation between marriage and dowry heightens, often motivating the families of young men to seek marriages for their sons in the hope of amassing wealth through demanding dowry.
In our highly patriarchal society, girls are seen as a burden; thus, the lesser the age for the marriage, the lesser the amount of dowry that needs to be transferred. Various studies have shown that girls from humble backgrounds tend to get married early often before they even hit puberty.
The families tend to seek marriages for their daughters early, as there is a correlation between perceived economic risk with their daughters' education expenditures and the rising cost of dowry as they age. A recent study has shown that a one-year higher age at marriage can increase the value of a dowry by nearly 50%, often leaving the family helpless and making them bound into surrendering to the pressure. The growing climate change threats and a rampant pandemic left girls even more vulnerable to early marriages.
The importance of marriage is widely recognised throughout the world, and it is often considered a significant establishment in society. However, it is expected that marriage will mark the individuals' entry to adulthood, but most times, this is not the case.
Marriage has a lasting impact on the health and wellbeing of adolescent girls and women. Most girls cannot continue with their education after their marriage as marriage force them into taking the role of an adult, not considering whether the young brides have the physical or mental ability to take on the role.
As defined by the United Nations, early marriage occurs when the girls are under 18, and as they stand on a vulnerable ground, their consent does not get valued by the parents. These early marriages impede the young brides in attaining education and deprive them of partaking in economic opportunities; thus, domestic violence occurs, and young brides' vulnerability remains incessant.
Early or child marriages lead young brides into early pregnancy, risking their health into birth-related complications as the infants and mothers both suffer from neonatal and post-natal difficulties. Furthermore, financial dependency or economic insecurity also impedes the girls from being their voice heard in the household; they do not get to make the financial or other related decisions that create the ground for domestic abuse with the adolescents' young brides.
In our country, marriage is often perceived as an adaptation strategy to fight climatic disasters and extreme weather events. During and after the event, low-income families look out for families who would like to marry their young daughters in exchange for a lower dowry, thus avoiding the social stigma and reputational risk of having an unmarried old daughter at home. Young adolescent girls often become lucrative targets for marriage. They are perceived vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse and carry the potential risk of jeopardising families' reputation if exposed to any kind of sexual assaults. Therefore, families often are ready to marry off adolescent daughters as an opportunity to leverage scarce resources and ensure that she is settled into a good home. Recent studies also highlight that repeated natural disasters aggravate the likelihood of early marriage among young girls. Many families take public shelter during floods or cyclones where they remain in constant fear if they have unmarried adolescent girls as they are vulnerable to sexual assaults.
Similarly, when low-income families feel financially insecure and lose their lands or assets to riverbank erosion, they prefer to marry off their daughters before migrating to different cities or regions. To deal with the aftermath of disasters and economic shock, daughters are often married off to reduce household consumption as they immediately join the groom's family after marriage. The limited economic mobility of women and girls makes them a liability in poor households. To reduce pressure on already scarce resources, the poverty-stricken family resorts to early marriages of their adolescent daughters to escape from further impoverishment.
Although dowry is given by the families believing that the daughters will have a peaceful conjugal life, in reality, this is not the case. A study done by Odhikar has shown that, between January 2001 and December 2019, there were over 5,800 incidents of dowry-related violence; in over half of those incidents, the woman was killed. According to Ain o Salish Kendra, in the year 2020, 73 cases were filed by women who were physically abused over issues relating to dowry, and 66 more cases were found where their husbands or in-laws killed women as they failed to pay the dowry on time.
Child marriage is extensively practised in Bangladesh despite having a well-established law specifying 18 as the minimum age of marriage for females, but this law is rarely enforced in reality. In 2017 the law was formally amended by the government to allow exceptions to the legal age of marriage when a guardian provides consent. The law stated that it is only to occur after ensuring the child's best interest; however, civil society heavily criticised the law as there is a possibility of the law being abused by the parents.
Traditional gender norms, coupled with high poverty rates and the increased influence of patriarchal and fundamental religious interpretations in our society, adds impetus to climate change-induced child marriages. These multi-layered factors result in one of the highest rates of child marriages in Bangladesh; in 2014, it was estimated that 59% of girls marry by their 18th birthday compared to 4.5% of boys, and over 22% of girls marry by age 15. In March, a report by Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) said that at least 13,886 girls in 21 districts were victims of child marriages between April and October of 2020.
Child marriages are on the rise; thus, it is about time to fight these above-mentioned gendered challenges. Our government and NGOs need to address these issues by providing more sustainable economic provisions and social support to the affected families, thus reducing the risk of early marriages among young adolescent girls of our country.
Sayeda Karim is an independent researcher working on environment, climate change, and gender. She has done her Masters in International development practice from Monash University, Australia.
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