This Friday, one of our host-sisters is getting married. She is the eldest daughter of one of the host-families, a family that I have grown close to over the past twelve weeks. All of the volunteers have been invited to attend and the female volunteers have been invited to participate in a pre-wedding ceremony that involves painting your body with tumeric.
This should be a cause of excitement and happiness for us all.
But Mukhti is under-age. The legal age for marriage in Bangladesh is eighteen for girls, twenty-one for boys. Mukhti is only fifteen. Despite our affection for the family, none of us want to condone what is an illegal marriage and something that goes against the very goals of our project.
Early marriage is a widespread problem in Bangladesh, which has the world’s worst record on child marriage: according to UNICEF, nearly two-thirds of girls are married before the age of eighteen. More than a quarter of girls are married before they reach fifteen. Poverty and a traditional patriarchal society combine, particularly in rural areas, to keep the rate of child marriage elevated despite national legislation. Young girls are often considered an economic burden to their families; prevailing cultural attitudes mean that it is still difficult for girls to work and earn an income. For families, marrying their daughters to older men in different families is often a family survival strategy. Dowry payments, which are a relatively new but growing phenomenon in Bangladesh, are lower when the girls are younger, acting as another incentive for families to marry their daughters at a young age. Such marriages are also a way for families to build their social status and to protect girls’ sexuality in an environment that is perceived to be unsafe – sexual harassment and assault are all too common and even the rumour of an inappropriate relationship can permanently damage a girl’s reputation, that of her family, and her future prospects,
Child marriage has serious consequences for girls. Marrying early significantly increases the chances that they will drop out of school, limiting their future choices. During a Community Action Day on the Importance of Education, a local primary school teacher told us that twenty-eight of her pupils had gone on the high school two years ago. After a year, fourteen children had dropped out: seven girls, all due to early marriage, and seven boys who had gone to find work in the garment factories. Girls who marry young face intense pressure to become pregnant; in Bangladesh, it is estimated that a third of girls aged between fifteen and nineteen are mothers or are pregnant. Early pregnancy carries significant health risks including higher maternal and infant mortality. Teenage mothers are twice to die in childbirth and babies born to mothers under fourteen are fifty per cent more likely to die than those born to mothers aged over twenty, a situation compounded by the poor levels of health care in the country.
This has not been my only experience of marriage traditions during my time in Bangladesh. My counterpart, S, is getting married. He dropped this little bombshell on me a few weeks ago, completely out of the blue. It’s an arranged marriage to a local girl of eighteen, whom S met once at a party a few years ago. It’s a good match for his family and for his fiancée’s. S’s father is a successful businessman and his fiancée comes from a religious family. S is the only son in the family so, once he is married, his parents will live with him and his new wife. With no social security or welfare, parents depend on their sons to support them in old age – just another reason why girls are seen to be a burden.
I’ve found talking to S about the marriage so interesting. S is well-educated, with a Masters’ degree in social anthropology, and generally seems to be modern and progressive in his outlook. So I was initially surprised when he said he agreed with the arranged marriage. But as he explained, I realised that family in Bangladeshi culture is so much more important than it is back home. To borrow from Jonathan Haidt, in Bangladesh, the ethic of community is dominant where as in western culture, the ethic of autonomy (the individual) takes priority. S puts the needs of his family above his own. It’s actually rather touching. S speaks to his fiancée for a few minutes every day, tentatively getting to know her; he blushes and goes all shy when I ask how she is.
This put him in a really difficult situation recently. His family were putting pressure on him to stop volunteering – he wants to continue on the next cycle and see the project through to its conclusion – and come home to get married right away. S wants to complete his volunteering journey and to find a stable job before he gets married. Bengali culture means that he can’t disobey his father, even if it means denying his own wishes. Luckily, S was able to persuade his father to delay the wedding until next year, giving S a chance to find a job that wants to do.
As an independent British woman, I found this whole episode really alien. Whilst I value my family’s support immensely, they would never dream of telling me how to run my life. So the idea of obeying my father seems incredibly strange. However, the more I talk to S, the more empathy I have for a culture that is less selfish and individualistic. Somehow, the ‘rules’ and expectations seem clearer here. Less choice, less freedom, isn’t necessarily a bad thing; people here seem to be more content with their lives. I’m not saying either way of living is better or worse. But living in a foreign, with a different set of norms and values, is really eye-opening. I think I am a more empathetic person now, able to see different points of view and opinions in a way I struggled to do before I came on ICSE.
This is my last post from the community. On Friday, we are going back to Dhaka for a week of learning visits and debriefing. I am definitely sad to be leaving the community that has been my home for the past twelve weeks. My host-family has been amazing; they have been so kind and welcoming to us. But I have to admit that I am looking forward to getting back to some creature comforts. The experience of living in a remote, rural community in Bangladesh is one that will stay with me forever. It has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I am a much better person for it.