Katy spent 3 months in Bangladesh as part of International Citizen Service (ICS). In her first blog she reflects on the realities of child marriage and the opportunities denied to so many girls.
When I was 21, my parents gave me a coin engraved with a map of the world with the world is your oyster inscribed underneath. I found this coin buried in a memory box under my bed while moving house earlier this year before leaving for Bangladesh, where I volunteered with YMCA and Y Care International for 3 months as part of the International Citizenship Service program.
Re-finding this coin seemed very timely so I took it with me to Bangladesh as a comforting memory of home, as well as a motivator to make the most of my experience.
But as I embarked on my three-month placement the coin came to have much more poignancy for me.
While in Bangladesh we worked with the local community on a whole host of development-based issues, but one that struck me most was the immediate prevalence of child marriage. As soon as we arrived, we met girls who had been forced into marriage from as early as 11 years old. The local high schools shared a significant rate of girls dropping out due to marriage, with one school reporting an 80% drop out rate which they mainly attributed to early and forced marriage - a staggering statistic that really shocked me!
But what shocked me more was the acceptance of this long performed tradition. For me it was something that seemed so obviously wrong. But as one male remarked ‘Child marriage has always been a problem in Bangladesh and it always will be. It won’t change.’ And that seemed to sum up the attitude perfectly. Many people are aware it is illegal, but it has become such a normalised practice too many people are willing to accept it.
I was fortunate to meet one girl Ranya (not her real name), who spoke openly about her trauma of being married at 15 to a man nearly 25 years older than her. After a tragic event she was left under the care of a grandparent who could not afford to support her; so the only answer was marriage.
Poverty seemed to be the main factor for girls being married so young for numerous reasons. Not only does marrying your daughter give you one less child to provide for, there is also the belief that there is no financial gain for families to keep their daughter in education. Once a girl is married she is her in-laws responsibility, so any income she earns will only be of a benefit to her husband’s family. Therefore a girl’s education is not seen as a sound investment.
Dowry payment is also still an entrenched part of marital tradition in many parts of Bangladesh, where a daughter’s family are expected to provide payment to the husband’s family for taking their daughter. And the sum of the payment directly correlates to her age: the younger she is the ‘cheaper’ the dowry; one of the starkest examples of women's objectification.
Originally I could not get my head around why parents would put their daughters through such an ordeal. But when you put all these economic factors together, marrying your daughter as soon as possible seemingly starts to make sense when living in such extreme poverty.
For Ranya, marrying at such a young age resulted in early pregnancy, which reflects the reported trend of 90% of all adolescent pregnancies in the developing world being girls who are already married. And this of course comes with many complications as many of these girls, like Ranya, are physically and mentally not mature enough for motherhood.
Rather than being a wife and mother by sixteen, Ranya's wish was to continue her education, something she was promised she could continue after marriage. However that promise soon manifested to be nothing more than a manipulation tool to convince her into wedlock.
Ranya is confined to her in-laws home where she describes her role as ‘a servant living in a prison’. After three years of marriage she says she is coming to the realisation that this is her only future, a reality she is trying to accept although it makes her deeply unhappy.
It was from that moment, hearing Ranya talk about her future in such a matter of fact way, that the coin my parents had given me started to have a much deeper meaning for me. Everyone should have the chance to make his or her own life choices, and child marriage is a complete breach of this right. Every day thousands of young girls’ futures are stolen from them by marriage; for them the world really isn’t their oyster.
To find out more about child marriage in Bangladesh listen to the BBC podcast ‘Forgotten Girls of Dhaka’ or read more here http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-36028066