Three years ago, the UK passed laws aiming to prevent forced marriages by offering protection to victims. But for millions of girls around the world, forced into marriage under the age of 18, no effective legal protection yet exists.
In Bangladesh, two thirds of girls are married before the legal age of 18. Since 2009, with support from Plan’s Girls Fund, five villages in Gazipur district have declared themselves free from child marriage.
Abused and tortured
Young and powerless child brides too often suffer violence at the hands of their in-laws. Shobna, a young woman from one of the Gazipur villages, explains: “I was 14 years old and knew nothing about marriage. My mother arranged for me to get engaged to a 20-year-old boy. He was educated; his father was a lawyer. They did not ask for a dowry and I was promised I could continue my education.
“He forcibly took me to his home. For the first two months life was OK but then my husband started hitting me, my mother in law too, and they started demanding a dowry.
“For two years, I was getting tortured heavily and I felt I would not survive. I was not fed properly - sometimes I would be given food at midnight. They would not let me go to school to do my exams. My mother and uncle came to see me but my in laws would not open the door. Mother sent a letter to father who came back from his job in Dubai.”
“They would not let my father see me so he went to a lawyer who got the President of the Bar Association to intervene. After hearing my story the President told my father in law to let me go home for a visit. My husband brought me home and when we were due to leave for my in laws I saw a large knife in his bag. I thought I would never survive if I went back with him and refused to leave home.”
Shobna’s mother now says: “We made a mistake. It will never happen again. I will continue my daughter’s education.” Her father agrees, “I was working away in Dubai and unable to protect my daughter. We made a mistake and must make it up to her.”
Child marriage free
Now Reema and Shobna have won their campaign against child marriage. The campaign was led by another child bride, Padma Rani Sarkar, who says: “I was married at 10. I had to look after the family and go to school. By 17, I had two children and I had a strong feeling inside that I must stop this happening.
In 2006, Padma found that 35% of brides in the village were aged 13 to 15. She assembled a group of former child brides and they talked to all the mothers about the dangers of child marriage - early pregnancy is a leading cause of death for girls - persuaded parents that girls are more valuable to the family if they stay in school and are educated and made sure everyone present knew that marriage under 18 is illegal in Bangladesh.
With help from Plan, they made sure that all children were registered so their age was known. They drew posters, held rallies, got the backing of religious leaders, the school and the local government and of young people themselves, and finally opinion shifted.
Padma says: “In June 2011 every family voted for this village to become 100% child marriage free.”
Shobna is relieved. She says: “Now I am free, I want to continue my education. I will advise those intending to have a child marriage that 18 is the right age”. Rani adds: “I was sad but now I am happy. I will work to stop other girls being married off.”
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