Imagine your life if you were married at 15, against your will, to an abusive husband. It’s the same for almost all the women you know. Your education came to an abrupt end once you were married, and you’re not allowed to have a job – other than having babies, that is. And because you got married young, you’re probably experiencing some sexual and reproductive health problems.
This is the reality for most women and girls in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has the fourth highest rate of child (under-18) marriage in the world, and the highest rate in South Asia: 65%. And studies show that around 87% of women have experienced some form of violence: 65% physical violence and 36% sexual violence. Of course, in reality those percentages could be higher – most domestic abuse is unreported in Bangladesh because many women feel ashamed and guilty about the abuse they suffer. And there’s hardly any access to justice anyway.
Earlier this week, I travelled to Bangladesh in my role as the UK’s ministerial champion for tackling violence against women and girls overseas. It was the third leg of my violence against women and girls awareness-raising mission around the world, after the United Arab Emirates and Somalia. And though the stats on child marriage and domestic abuse are shocking, there is very clear room for optimism and momentum for change.
At this summer’s Girl Summit in London, hosted by the coalition government and UNICEF, we helped mobilise domestic and international efforts to end child, early and forced marriage, as well as female genital mutilation, within a generation. There, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made some fantastic pledges to end under-15 child marriage by 2021 and end all under-18 child marriage by 2041, and I admire her leadership. If Bangladesh can end child marriage, it can set the model for others to follow.
On Monday, I went to the follow-up Bangladesh Girl Summit, where Bangladeshi ministers, civil society, women and young people united against child marriage and discussed how to tackle it, from the community to the national level.
And I saw how child marriage really can be stopped at the community level. I met a young girl called Shabnaz in one of Dhaka’s slums, who through the support of her community’s women’s group was able to escape child marriage. She told me how her father had been about to marry her off at 14 and how she went to Dolly, a leader of her community group, for help. Dolly spoke with Shabnaz’s father, told him about the detrimental impact marriage would have on Shabnaz’s health and well-being, on her entire future. He was convinced! The marriage was called off, Shabnaz is continuing her studies and she’ll be able to support herself and give back to her family. And I’m proud that DFID, through our support to the Urban Partnerships for Poverty Reduction Programme, is helping to set up and train even more community groups like the one that helped Shabnaz.
At the national level, the Bangladeshi government has announced plans to change the Child Marriage Restraint Act by increasing the maximum penalty for violations from 2 months to 2 years in prison with heavier fines. Strengthening and enforcing this law would be a great step forward.
However, the Bangladeshi government’s proposed changes would also decrease the marriageable age for girls from the current age of 18 to 16. This seems directly at odds with Sheikh Hasina’s commitments at the Girl Summit, and there is seemingly a lot of confusion about this change even among Bangladeshi politicians. But it’s not over yet. I met Dr Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, Speaker of the Bangladesh Parliament, who said she will be writing to Sheikh Hasina to convene a meeting on the rationale for lowering the marriageable age before the legislation comes to Parliament. I, along with the UK High Commission and DFID office in Bangladesh, will be watching developments closely and encouraging the government not to lower the age.
Overall my visit to Bangladesh was a real source of inspiration. I particularly admire the energy, enthusiasm and talent shown by those young people whose lives have been affected by child marriage and violence and are working so hard to put an end to it. Violence against women and girls is one of the most systematic, widespread human rights abuses in the world. And it will take all of us to end it. But the committed campaigners I met in Bangladesh – including, crucially, men – are proof that what we seek to achieve is possible.