From Wed May 31 08:58:54 2000
Date: Thu, 18 May 2000 23:50:02 -0500 (CDT)
From: IGC News Desk <>
Subject: DEVELOPMENT-BANGLADESH: Child Brides Face Health Woes
Article: 96492
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

Child brides face health woes

By Tabibul Islam, Interpress Service, 17 May 2000

DHAKA, May 17 (IPS)—Jobeda, a domestic worker in the Bangladeshi capital, is happy at having finally found a life partner for her 13-year-old daughter.

Taking the little money she had hoarded away for the wedding from her meagre monthly earnings of less than 10 U.S. dollars, Jobeda travelled to her home in the countryside some 100 km from here for the marriage.

She does not know that what she has done has made her liable to pay a 20 dollar penalty—and could even land her in prison.

But the unlettered mother could not have cared less even if she knew the law. For the legal ban on the marriage of girls below 18 years of age and boys less than 21 years old has rarely been enforced in the country.

According to estimates by peoples' groups campaigning against the practice, under-age nuptials make up at least a tenth of the nearly two million weddings every year in the nation of more than 120 million people. Many of these brides are just 10 years old.

Those battling the practice admit there are very strong social and economic reasons for this in a nation with one of the highest levels of poverty, illiteracy and second class social status for women.

Daughters are seen as ‘social burdens' by even middle class families in traditional Bangladeshi society and unmarried grown-up girls frowned upon. Single, grown up girls of poor families in the cities also face the risk of sexual harassment from neighbourhood boys.

But the critics say that early marriage severely damages the health of the young brides and the children born to them.

Health experts say this is a main cause of widespread child malnutrition that is a big child killer and affects the physical and mental growth of hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi children.

According to the latest U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) State of the World's Children report, Bangladesh has the world's highest level of malnourished children. Half of all newborns have low birth weight and more than half the children under five years old suffer “moderate” or “severe” malnutrition.

Other estimates say that diseases related to malnutrition kill 700 children everyday in this country.

Generations of malnutrition have shortened the average height of the people. According to a document prepared by United Nations development agencies and the World Bank, Bangladesh is perhaps the only country where this has happened.

The study titled, ‘A Fork In The Path’, notes that the average height of 12-year old boys in the rural areas has declined by seven percent between 1937 and 1982.

Moreover, malnourished children grow up into adults who cannot work to full productivity. The annual loss in economically useful work due to malnutrition in Bangladesh is estimated to be some three billion dollars. This is as much as the annual government spending on health, education and other social sectors.

Women's' rights activist Rashida Ameen describes child marriage as the “cruelest form of repression” of young girls. Young brides are usually burdened with heavy household chores, besides being required to take personal care of their husbands.

The girls are often beaten up by in-laws and husbands angered by slight lapses in household work. In some cases, the harassed girls are known to end their lives, says Ameen.

Pregnancy at a young age affects the child in the womb. According to experts, in 75 percent of cases, under-age mothers give birth to underweight infants.

Women activists accuse parents of rights abuse in marrying off young girls as the latter are not even consulted before the decision is taken.

A survey by the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association in the southern Noakhali district in 1998 found that parents rarely consulted their under-18-year-old daughters when marrying them off.

In fact, the low-income parents usually lie about the real age of their daughters at the time of their marriage. The lack of birth registration in rural areas makes it difficult to verify the real age of girls.

Legal experts fault the law. Lawyer Elena Khan of Ain-O-Salish Kendra, a non-governmental group that offers legal aid to the poor, points to an inner contradiction in the Child Marriage Act.

Although the law has made child marriage an offence, it has not declared child marriages illegal, she says.

Compulsory birth registration for all children can help a great deal in enforcing the law, she says. Khan also wants the law to be in tune with social realities, but cautions against hasty changes as these could touch off sharp public reaction.

Women's rights activists believe that laws alone cannot stop child marriages, and have emphasised the need for educating people about the dangers of child marriage.