"No One Ever Asked These Girls Their Opinion": The Forgotten Child Brides Of Bangladesh

Courtesy of the BBC
In Bangladesh, two thirds of girls are married before they turn 18.

For many, the forced wedding renders their life effectively over.

Child marriage across the globe forces girls to drop out of school, run the risk of dangerous underage pregnancies, or — like in the cases of three girls featured in a new BBC programme — see their lives turned upside down once more when they’re abandoned by their adult husbands.

Journalist Farhana Haider went to Duaripara, a slum outside Bangladesh’s capital city of Dhaka, to meet a group of teenage girls who were married and abandoned for her documentary, The Forgotten Girls of Dhaka. The film is part of BBC’s Identity series, which airs in the United States on Sunday, April 24.

“In most countries at 16, it’s when children are forming their identities. They’re coming into adulthood. And what I found was, in many ways, the opposite to that,” Haider told Refinery29.

Ahead, she shares her experience making the documentary, and what life is really like for the abandoned — but utterly resilient — girls of Dhaka.

What made you interested in telling these girls’ stories?
“Initially, I was working on a story, back in July of last year, about the Millennium Development Goals. The story was about how Bangladesh was meeting targets in regards to primary school education for girls. We went to that particular slum to talk to girls who had dropped out of school because they’d been married. I met two of the girls there. We used them as case studies, so the interviews weren’t much longer than clips.

“I just found them fascinating, in the sense that these girls are 16 — young. But yet when they were talking to me, they felt like to me that they’d been through so much. They’d left school several years ago, they’d been married already. One was pregnant. They’d all been left by their husbands. At 16, they felt like their lives were over, in a way. And their stories stayed with me, because I found them so bright and yet so sad.

“What if you’re 16 — you’re poor, you’ve already been through so much — and at 16 you felt that your identity was out of your control. I wanted to talk to these girls so much because they had more to say than just case studies. I wanted to know about them.”

Oftentimes these girls are married off because their families simply can’t afford to feed them.

Farhana Haider
You’re asking them to tell you about some of the hardest and saddest moments in their lives. How did you get them to open up to you?
“They’re lovely girls, I mean — they’re very endearing, these girls. And what is common with all teenagers across the world is, once you show some interest in what they’re doing, [they open up], and with these girls in particular, no one asks them their opinion. No one’s ever asked them how they feel about things. They’re told to get married. There’s no time for them to discuss their feelings. Some of them were telling me that at work, they’re able to do it with their friends, which is something that they love. But at home, there’s no time for any of that.

“It’s just talking about things that didn’t make them feel uncomfortable. So I would never react. It was important to me to not judge them, as they’re talking about being beaten up at 14. Or, essentially, talking about being raped. Just to not make any judgments, let them just talk in their own words like they were in a very safe environment, which they were. And they were very keen to tell their stories.”

Money and poverty are always in the background here — the girls are abused by their husbands and abandoned because they’re poor and have no dowry to give. How does financial dependence play into these girls’ situations?
“Money and marriage in Bangladesh, especially for poor women, go hand in hand. Oftentimes these girls are married off because their families simply can’t afford to feed them. That is the main issue. They cannot feed these girls. And then these men approach them and say, ‘Look, we want to marry your daughter.’ The parents often say yes because they hope that this man will then look after their daughter and it will mean there’s one less mouth to feed. But what often happens, unfortunately, is a few months into the marriage, they start demanding a dowry. Which these families can’t afford. If they had that much money, they probably wouldn’t have married their daughters off.”

But when we see Asma talking about how her job allows her to be financially independent, she just lights up. How do financial independence and employment help them after they get out of the marriages?
“[Being abandoned is] devastating to these girls financially. But what’s very interesting about the slum that I was in is that it’s a stone’s throw away from the garment district.

“Getting jobs in garment factories — these girls are underage, so they shouldn’t be working, but. There is regular income. They’re earning more than their parents could earn. It transforms them, and the financial independence means they’re not forced to have to marry again. That’s already done away with, because they’ve been married and been left. And in society, they’re respected more. They’re bringing in an income, they’ve no worries about getting food on the table, and, you know, these are teenage girls. They’re very keen to show me that they can still buy their beauty products! They save up, and they buy their creams, and oil for their hair, and they can buy earrings and clips, and it’s with their own money.”

The Forgotten Girls of Dhaka is available on radio via bbcworldservice.com, as part of BBC’s Identity series.

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