Amena (not her real name) had had several marriage proposals by the time she reached 15, but she rejected every one. The schoolgirl, who lives with her parents in southwest Bangladesh, wants to continue her studies and avoid becoming a child bride like many of her friends. While Amena knows her parents will most likely pick her future husband, she is, according to a report recently released on child marriage, one of the lucky girls in Bangladesh who hasn’t been married off before the age of 15.
Two out of three girls in Bangladesh marry before the legal age of 18 and a third will wed before their 15th birthday. Most become mothers while they themselves are still children. But targeted educational support and skills training could see child marriage in Bangladesh drop by up to a third, according to the findings of a four-year study by the Population Council.
Bangladesh has the fourth highest rate of child marriage in the world, and is second only to India in terms of absolute numbers. It’s a practice driven largely by cultural and religious beliefs, poverty and the perceived need to protect girls from harm, including sexual harassment. Research shows that the prevalence of child marriage increases at times of natural disasters, as parents worry about their daughter’s future or struggle to meet basic needs. And, while illegal, the custom of dowry (requiring a bride’s family to pay significant sums to the groom) can result in the youngest adolescent girls being married off, as often they require smaller dowries.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) maintains that child marriage is a human rights violation, which threatens girls’ lives and health and limits their future prospects. It says child marriage often leads to girls becoming pregnant while still adolescent, increasing the risk of complications in pregnancy or childbirth – a leading cause of death among older adolescents in developing countries.
The Population Council’s Bangladeshi Association for Life Skills, Income and Knowledge for Adolescents (BALIKA) project began in 2012 and has involved more than 9,000 girls aged between 12 and 18 in the rural communities of Khulna, Satkhira and Narail, where child marriage is most prevalent.
Girls across 72 communities in the northwest and southwest of Bangladesh took part in one of three skills-building interventions: educational support through tutoring in math and English (in-school girls) and computing or financial skill training (out-of-school girls); life skills training on gender rights, critical thinking and decision making; or livelihood training in entrepreneurship, mobile phone servicing, photography and basic first aid.
The girls received 100 hours of training, support and mentoring over 18 months, meeting weekly with peers and mentors in safe, girl-only locations – called BALIKA centers – that were housed in their local primary school. In addition to broadening their skills, the aim was for the girls to build their confidence, demonstrate their achievements and raise their profile within the community.
Another 24 communities served as a control to the study, with no such services, education or training provided in these locations. The girls who received educational support or life skills training were 31 percent less likely to be married while still children at the end of the study than girls in the control communities. Those who received livelihood training were 23 percent less likely to be married.
In Bangladesh, efforts to prevent early marriage have focused on the enforcement of laws and policies – so-called “marriage busting” – but little research has been done until now into other interventions. Sajeda Amin, a senior associate who leads the Population Council’s work on livelihoods for adolescent girls, says the BALIKA findings clearly demonstrate the impact of programs on delaying marriage age.
“Now we have not one, but three approaches that are proven to work,” she says. “The BALIKA results show that programs that build girls’ skills and knowledge and elevate their visibility and status in their families and communities while keeping them safe can significantly reduce the average child marriage rate in the community.”
Girl-centered program design was critical to the project’s success, explains Amin. Each center employed a local young woman and a local female schoolteacher to deliver training and education support.
Another key factor was community involvement: “Recruiting two local people was really critical to anchoring the program in the community,” says Amin. “The field staff also met with communities to explain critical points and engaged with them to continue the work.”
Feedback from BALIKA participants indicates greater awareness of rights and more self-confidence. One girl from Pankhali said: “I learned from BALIKA that I can say ‘No’ to a marriage proposal. I learned that if a proposal comes and I am too young to marry, I am able to express my opinion to convince my parents. If I couldn’t convince them, then I would seek out someone in the family who would understand me or else I would consult with my friends.”
The BALIKA project was delivered with a range of partners, including the Dutch government, local NGO The Population Services & Training Center, ICT group mPower and the Center for International Development Issues Nijmegen. Around 38 centers produced a viable plan to follow up the programs, the most sustainable strategy being to use the preexisting local government budget for women and children to fund the centers’ staff salaries.
The findings are cited in a recent report on child marriage in conflict from the Women’s Refugee Commission. The report suggests that child marriage can be reduced when girls have access to education, and recommends that donors and policymakers should support the piloting of child marriage interventions and learning documentation.
Bangladesh has set 2041 as the target date to eliminate child marriage, and the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has stated that she wants to outlaw marriage among under-15s by 2021. But a 2015 report by Human Rights Watch claimed the government is not doing enough to reach its targets, while proposals to lower the marriage age for girls to 16 have been vigorously opposed by civil society activists.
Amin at the Population Council concludes: “If we want to effectively reduce child marriage in Bangladesh, we must employ new approaches that empower each girl, engage her family and her community so she is seen as an asset, not as a liability.”