Compared to the rest of South Asia, Bangladesh is doing relatively well when it comes to a number of women's-empowerment issues, from girls' access to education to women's political roles. But in one crucial area, the country still fails miserably: child marriage. Bangladesh has the highest rate of child brides under age 15 in the world, according to Human Rights Watch. Nearly a third of Bangladeshi girls will be married before the age of 15, and 65% will be wed by the age of 18.
"Given how much success some other countries have had at bringing down the rate of child marriage and the increased attention globally to the harms caused by child marriage, Bangladesh’s progress on this issue is disappointing," Heather Barr, senior researcher on women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, told Refinery29.
Child marriage has been illegal in the region since 1929, but the law is hardly enforced. “In our research, we've never witnessed or heard through second-hand sources of anyone ever being arrested or prosecuted for arranging or performing a child marriage,” said Barr.
There are several factors driving the high rate of child marriage in Bangladesh, according to Barr's research. Though poverty places a huge role, natural disasters, sexual harassment, and social pressures are also high on the list of contributing factors.
The fact that even prosperous Bangladeshi families arrange their daughters' marriages before they are legally allowed to wed is something I know firsthand. My own mother was a child bride at 15.
My mother, Fardowsi, comes from a relatively well-to-do family. She grew up in Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital, and lived a very modern life. She was intelligent, athletic, and several grades ahead in school. She was a tomboy with fiery curly hair and huge doe eyes, and her beauty was hard to miss. She was one of the popular girls in her class. She wore bell-bottoms and tunics instead of saris. She listened to the latest music on the radio and fought with her sister over whose favorite movie star was better. She read voraciously and dreamt of traveling to San Francisco, like her favorite detective character had.
Poverty was clearly not the reason why my maternal grandparents married off my smart mother, full of promise, at just 15 years old. Rather, it was a patriarchal notion of a woman’s place in society that would dictate the opportunities she had in life.
The few black and white photos of my mother as a young bride depict a shy, demure girl, hopeful for the future and content with the new life her parents had chosen for her. Over the years, I’ve asked my mother how she felt on her wedding day. She has a hard time formulating the words, but the overall sentiment seems to be acceptance. In some ways, I don’t think she realizes the gravity of having been married off at such a young age. But that is unsurprising, given that child marriage was common in Bangladesh in the '70s, as it still is today.
My parents, separately, without ever having seen each other would whisper 'yes' into the telephone to the imam, in front of their family and friends, and be bound in holy matrimony.
Even 36 years later, sexual harassment is still a huge issue in Bangladesh. Barr said that the government continues to do very little to help girls combat it, "so parents feel that getting the girl married is the best option to protect her and the family’s reputation."
My own mother's road to an arranged marriage began when one of my father’s older brothers spotted her coming home from school, in her pigtails and school uniform. It was a scene out of a retro Bollywood film: the innocent schoolgirl giggling away with her friends while the boys looked on.
In the South Asian rom-com version, it would be my dad who would spot her and fall madly in love at first sight — courting her by throwing rocks at her window and begging her to shed her innocence and be with him. But in my mother's case, it was her future brother-in-law who spotted her shining cheeks and infectious smile, and decided that she was the cure for my father's waywardness.
At the time, my 21-year-old father, Giashuddin, was an undocumented immigrant living in Germany, working odd jobs, and trying to make a future for himself. Previously, he had been a student involved in the messy politics of the new Bangladeshi republic. My grandfather, who was a city judge and a respected figure in the community, decided to ship my father off to Germany so he could start over and create a life for himself.
My father never talks about that time in his life, but I am guessing that my grandfather’s plans to curb my father’s rebellious nature in Germany didn't work out so well. Which is why my grandfather moved on to the next option: marriage.
We have to change the way girls are valued, so they are no longer seen as a burden, and they no longer feel that they have no control over their own lives.
My dad's family was part of a higher social class and boasted a more impressive lineage, both factors that my mother's parents considered when they arranged her marriage. Faced with the prospect of marrying their first born child to an educated man living in Europe, my mother's parents did not feel like they could turn down the offer. They accepted, and the marriage was arranged.
Never mind that the groom lived in Europe and couldn’t even come home to attend the wedding. In those days, there was an easy solution to international arranged marriages: the telephone.
My parents, separately, without ever having seen each other (they were shown just a single photo each), would whisper 'yes' into the telephone to the imam, in front of their family and friends, and be bound in holy matrimony. So it was, on my mother's wedding day.
A few months later, just shy of her 16th birthday, my mother got on a plane for the first time. Armed with only a rudimentary knowledge of English and no knowledge of German, she flew halfway around the world by herself to meet her husband for the first time.
My parents union would prove to be challenging. They were as different as night and day, and would have probably never chosen each other had they had the opportunity. In photos from the early days of their marriage, before they had my sister and me, they are two radiant young people. But life in America, where they eventually ended up in 1983 with two small children, was difficult.
She was a strict parent — tough and unyielding. She placed her children's education before everything else. My aunt, from time to time, would comment on the fact that my sister and I had no domestic skills and never even made our own beds . My mother would always retort back that we had plenty of time to learn all of those things. Our job as children, teenagers, and young adults was to consume education and spit out degrees. She felt that her greatest mission in life was to give her daughters the opportunities she missed out on; the rest would take care of itself.
In general, South Asian parents put education on a high pedestal. But given how my mother’s own ambitions were cut short, it makes sense that she would lock us up with our schoolbooks until she was satisfied that we had absorbed enough information.
To make up for her own limited educational opportunities, my mother read everything she could get her hands on. She pored over the New York Times, The Economist, anything and everything. It is from her that I inherited my love for the written word.
Virginity was and is a prized trait. In Bangladesh, then and now, there is a cultural mindset that a young, untouched bride is a magical elixir for unruly men.
My mother envisioned a pretty compact future for my sister and me. We were to be educated, with master’s degrees and beyond in whatever professions we chose, and then married to fellow Bangladeshi-American men. My mother wanted us each to have a comfortable, medium-sized suburban house with a neatly manicured lawn and two or three children. It was not a unique dream for an immigrant parent to have; but it is certainly a far cry from the life she led: married at 15 without finishing school, working at a blue-collar job, and raising her kids in Queens.
My mother’s push for us to achieve her vision was unrelenting. She drilled it into our heads that we were to go after everything in life that she hadn’t gotten. So you can imagine her disappointment when I chose to become a freelance writer, and unsure of whether I want to pursue higher education beyond a bachelor's degree.
But a great partner to her means a well-educated, Bangladeshi-American man over five feet eight inches tall; and this was non-negotiable. And since she herself didn’t have a proper wedding with a groom who was actually in the room, my mother has been collecting little knick-knacks for my wedding for as long as I could remember.
I have often felt: how can I let her down? And so, since I was 15 years old, I have been dreaming of the perfect Bollywood love story. I have been dreaming of my Big Fat Bangladeshi wedding.
In the process, I have secretly eloped, dated, and had affairs with men that were disastrous for me, despite meeting ethnic and physical requirements, because my self-worth was still determined by who and when I got married. It took me a long time to recognize that I was not really looking at the full picture when I chose which men to get involved with. I was in such a hurry to check off all of my mother's boxes, and I rushed to meet the cultural expectations laid down for me.
But along with education, there was another huge life goal in our household: marriage.
Even though I wasn’t married off at 15, I have been committed from that age to find that magical someone that will round out our family, round out my life, and make my mother’s sacrifice worthy. Only recently have I come to the realization that that is not how the story is supposed to go. That is not how happiness is attained. I’m not my mother. All our lives are going to shape up differently, no matter what choices we make or others make for us.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I could have easily been in my mother’s place, or one of the girls that make up the 29% of child brides in Bangladesh today. Last year, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, a woman, pledged to end child marriage by 2041. But the fact that she attempted to lower the legal age of marriage for girls from 18 to 16 last year is a serious cause for concern, human rights groups assert.
"We have to change the way girls are valued, so they are no longer seen as a burden, and they no longer feel that they have no control over their own lives," said Barr.
Gender equality is one of the 17 Millennium Development Goals proposed by the U.N. for the next 15 years. My mother’s sacrifices have afforded me the ability to choose my own path, to break free of cultural expectations and ideas fueled by patriarchy, and to discover a life best fit for me. I just hope that the long path to empowerment can provide girls in Bangladesh with similar opportunities.