In December 2011, the United Nations General Assembly declared October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child to recognise girls’ rights and the unique challenges girls face around the world.
Globally, girls face discrimination and violence every day, often for no other reason than being born a girl. The International Day of the Girl Child focuses attention on the need to address the challenges girls face and to promote girls’ empowerment and the fulfilment of their human rights.
One of the most harrowing statistics is that according to the UN, one in three women and girls will experience abuse in their lifetime. A statistic we wish did not exist.
The latest edition of Compassion Magazine focuses on girls and explores some of the many areas where they face inequality. One of these areas is child marriage. According to Girls Not Brides, in the developing world, one in seven girls is married before her 15th birthday and some child brides are as young as eight or nine years old.
One girl in rural Bangladesh refuses to be one of them.
More than a dowry
Across Bangladesh in rural and impoverished villages, some girls are raised believing that being a girl is simply their bad fortune and that their main purpose in life is to serve their husband. Although illegal, the dowry system which forces girls’ parents to pay large amounts of money to their husbands, is alive and well. This means that many parents face the prospect of unpayable debt when they have girls.
As a result, often parents want their girls to marry men who demand less. Many men perceive that the demand for girls is at a peak when they turn 12 or 13, and they compromise their requested dowry amount to lure a young bride. Poor families have no choice but to give a smaller dowry in the face of grinding poverty, with some allowing teenage daughters to marry without fully understanding the dangers.
According to UNICEF, over one-third of girls in Bangladesh are married before the age of 15, even though legally the minimum age of marriage for girls is 18. This causes many girls to drop out of school and become exposed to physical relationships they are unprepared for.
Within a year of marriage, most girls give birth for the first time, their youth doubling the chance of fatal complications. Giving birth at such a young age also increases the likelihood that both the mother and child will suffer from malnutrition.
Young wives are expected to care for their husbands, households and extended families; in many cases, this results in an extreme load of housework and the physical burden makes them weaker every day. Many husbands lose interest in their wives and beat them or throw them out to return, shamed, to their parents’ homes where they are seen as burdens.
In the majority of cases, girls are unable to protest against getting married as they are not allowed to make decisions about their lives.
Sushama Das is an exception.
At only 13 years old, Sushama already understands her rights. Watching her older sister forced into marriage at a young age made Sushama firm in her decision to not follow in her sister’s footsteps, even when her parents wanted her to marry a man whose dowry demand was affordable.
“My parents [tried to] force me, but I denied getting married this young,” says Sushama. “My elder sister married when she was 12 or 13. She had to quit her studies. She suffered from different sicknesses and couldn’t take care of her child properly. Her husband also beat her often. I don’t want that life.”
Sushama was badly beaten by her parents for her rebellion. The next say, she went to the Compassion child development centre where she was registered and told the staff what happened. Immediately, the program manager and a female social worker visited her house to speak to her parents, who denied their belief in child marriage. The staff were not convinced of their testimony and warned that next time they would bring the police.
Police say that due to a lack of serious complaints or protests against child marriage they have been unable to take action in rural areas. However, the local administration supported Sushama and Compassion stood behind her as she made a formal complaint.
The child development centre arranged a rally against child marriage, which local government bodies participated in. Children from Compassion programs led the rally, which travelled around the village and raised awareness of the dangers of child marriage. The risks of child marriage became an important topic in parents’ meetings at the centre. The staff were motivated by Sushama’s protest.
Sushama found strength from her sister’s experience and the teaching she received at the child development centre. Teenage girls are taught about the issues with child marriage and the necessity of education, as well as health care.
“At the centre I learnt that if I got married too young, then it will harm my health, future and life. [Instead of getting married] I want to continue my studies and become a nurse,” says Sushama.
Sushama set an example for girls in the program, who are now more engaged in different activities to develop awareness about child marriage. Her story is one example, but there are many communities across the country facing the same issue—and there is a big challenge ahead for local staff and churches to convince parents that child marriage isn’t their daughters’ best option.
Want to read more about the girls? Download Compassion Magazine and share more stories of great vulnerability and strength.
Words by Ryan Johnson, David Adhikary and Monique Wallace