A recent conference in Copenhagen called 'Women Deliver' opened up our eyes in many ways. A galaxy of eminent women, including Melinda Gates, stole attention of the conference with their wisdom. Especially, Melinda's clarion call for accurate data generation for women so that appropriate interventions can be made, and her commitment to earmark $80 million for this purpose was laudable. About 6,000 participants gathered there majority of whom were activists, researchers and policymakers related to women issues. Besides, a number of stalls were set up in the venue to exhibit on-going developments surrounding health, nutrition, empowerment and human capital of women.
'Taking action to address child marriage: the role of different sectors' was a brief on gender-based violence. It was prepared and circulated at the the conference by two organisations 'Girls, not Brides' and the 'International Center for Research on Women'. According to the brief, "Child marriage is, in itself, recognised as a form of gender-based violence by the United Nations and many governments, and the practice can also perpetuate other forms of gender-based violence. Gender norms that devalue girls and contribute to child marriage also increase the likelihood that child brides will experience violence within those marriages". The brief then lists a number of problems associated with child marriage which many of us are already aware of. However, suffice it to say that girls who marry before the age of 18 are more likely to experience physical, sexual and emotional abuse than those who marry later.
It has further been observed in the brief that security concerns, real or perceived, are often drivers of child marriage. Especially in Bangladesh case, this has happened to be so. "Once girls enter adolescence, girls' sexuality is often seen as vulnerability an invitation to violence. A girl may be pulled out from school even during the time of relative stability because her walk there may leave her vulnerable to harassment or violence. Parents may feel helpless to protect their daughters and see marriage as a way of securing her safety".
The post-child marriage situation in Bangladesh seems to be a nightmare. Professor Niaz Asadullah from University of Malaya and Dr Zaki Wahhaj from University of Kent, citing various international studies, argue that Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage anywhere in the world - 39 per cent of girls are married before they are 15, and 74 per cent before they are 18. Recent studies have shown that early marriage for girls leads to lower schooling and the onset of early pregnancy. Over 20 per cent of those who are brides before reaching 15 years become mothers of 3 or more children before they are 24. By and large, child marriage amounts to imposing death penalty on children or adolescents.
"To address these issues, Bangladeshi policymakers have been considering introducing changes to marriage laws, including a move to permit girls to marry at 16 with parental consent and introducing harsher punishments for those who break the law on the minimum age of marriage". The rationale behind the move has been put to empirics by the researchers. "The rationale behind the proposed legislative changes is that with an increasing number of adolescent girls attending secondary school in rural areas and working in the industrial sector, they are more likely to encounter situations where they may be taken advantage of by men, pressured into sexual relationships or persuaded to elope, while marriage provides social protection to adolescent girls against these threats."
However, a recent countrywide survey of women's life, choices and attitudes in Bangladesh shows only 3 per cent of women report that the main reason for their marriage was parental concern for their physical safety. By contrast, 72 per cent stated that it was because their parents deemed the marriage proposal too good to refuse. Only 14 per cent of women in that sample had love-marriages. These women were less likely to marry by age 15 (32 per cent) than those who had arranged marriages (39 per cent) and less likely to say that they 'would have preferred to delay their marriage' (32 per cent) than women who had arranged marriages (40 per cent).
Very recent evidence from BRAC's Adolescent Development Programme (ADP) survey carried out by Neaz Asadullah, Abdul Alim and Fatema Khatoon, highlights a perceived lack of agency among today's adolescents: only 6 per cent of girls would choose their own life partners. In case of disagreement with their parents, 75 per cent of the ADP adolescents would accept their parental choice regarding marriage; at most 6 per cent would resort to extreme measures such as elopement, forcing parental acceptance, or self-harm. The ADP survey also highlights an intergenerational agency trap: mothers marrying early were less likely to have a say in their own marriage, and less willing to give consent if their daughters choose their own life partners.
Evidences from various surveys suggest that women who make their own choice of partners are prone to marry later with positive benefits for the next generation. "Any changes in child marriage law should aim to improve the capacity of adolescent girls to exercise their own choice rather than circumvent it. Increased agency among adolescent girls regarding marriage decisions is likely to translate into delayed marriage. In this context, NGO-led initiatives such as the Adolescent Development Programme of BRAC can play an important role".
By and large, the argument behind reducing age limit for marriage does not seem to be tenable on an empirical footing. More important is the question that in a country where parents feel insecure to send children to schools/colleges - and hence call for the action - how can the government claim that a better law and order situation or rule of law prevailed in the society? Child marriage should be resisted at any cost.
The writer is Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University.