Tahmima Anam on early marriage in Bangladesh.
A recent study by the development organization Plan Bangladesh and the nonprofit International Center for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh, showed that 64 percent of women aged 20-24 were married before the age of 18. Early marriage and early motherhood are the cause of a host of social and health problems, from a greater incidence of domestic violence to an increased risk of child and maternal mortality. Young brides stop going to school (according to Unicef, 5.6 million Bangladeshi children have dropped out of education early because of marriage) and thus have fewer opportunities for employment, and, crucially, little knowledge of their rights within marriage.
To the dismay of Bangladeshi NGOs, health workers and activists, the government’s response to this study has been a proposal to lower the legal age of marriage to 16. The minister for women and children’s affairs, Meher Afroz Chumki, commented: “In our country, girls become matured by the age of 14. This may become a burden for many families. If the country allows the parents to marry their daughters off at young age, many social problems may cease to exist as well.”
Oy. No, in Bangladesh and any other country girls don’t “become matured” by the age of 14. Some reach puberty by that age, or earlier, but puberty≠maturity. Maturity is alas completely different from puberty and comes much later (and gradually as opposed to all at once). The prefrontal cortex doesn’t finish developing until age 25, to cite just one index.
The putative “burden” of course is that the daughter might start fucking, and thus destroy the family’s “honor.” That’s why early marriage is considered a fix. It’s all about the fucking, and nothing else.
The minister for health and family affairs, Zahid Maleque, confused matters further by insisting that the problem was elopement, claiming that “rural adolescent girls run away from home to get married.” What united the two officials was the idea of an adolescent girl whose sexual maturity is a danger to her family, and of marriage as a way to control female sexual behavior. This, rather than a system that limits choices for young women, was the problem in their view.
Girls are seen as a contaminant to get rid of, which is depressing in itself, even before we get to the consequences.
The responsibility of our elected officials should be to protect young women from regressive customs that limit their potential, not change the rules to massage government statistics. Despite the politicians’ inadequate response, the future looks promising: Studies show that the rate of early marriage is declining. But we have a long way to go to reverse the age-old assumption that an adolescent girl is a problem to which the solution is marriage.
It’s time for a Year of the Girl, I think.