Refusing Marriage, Choosing Education
By Naimul Haq
29 March 2012. Natore, Bangladesh : Around 20 young girls clap and sing in harmony under a large tin shed as neighbours cast curious looks. The chorus becomes louder as the girls sing a clear message: ‘Girls, don’t get married before you are 18’.
The girls in Biprohalsha village in Natore district, some 200km north-west of the capital Dhaka, are hosting one of their twice-monthly gatherings, part of UNICEF’s adolescent empowerment project funded by the European Union and run by BRAC. One of their main subjects of discussion is child marriage. In Bangladesh, rates of teen marriage are among the highest in the world.
The song has a particular resonance for Afroza Khatun, a 17-year-old college student who leads the group. In the face of custom and community pressure, Afroza recently refused her marriage proposal, setting an example in her village by convincing her parents, neighbours and village leaders that she wanted to complete her studies before getting married.
“Early in September a relative from adjacent Bujangacha village came to see my father to propose my marriage with the owner of a small shop. A day later I told my parents that I wanted to complete my studies in college” said Afroza.
She and her friends from the adolescent group asked senior members of their community to help her convince her parents.The first person they went to was Sharathi Biswas, programme organiser of BRAC: “I reminded Afroza’s parents about our previous meetings in which they had agreed to respect teenage girls’ rights and avoid early marriage.”
A local union council member, Md Hazrat Ali Mandol, also intervened on Afroza’s behalf. As a council member, Mandol has considerable influence in the society and he strongly supports girls waiting until they are at least 18 to get married.
“I mediated when I heard that Afroza was getting married. It’s a shame that people still consider young girls a burden on their families” said Mandol.
Afroza also had help from a local religious leader, Abdur Razzak, who said: “I had organized a meeting of senior members of the community to condemn those who agree to get their daughters married before the age of 18. In this case, I thought we could easily convince Afroza’s father.”
Afroza’s father, Md Akram Hossain, recalls how he eventually agreed to his daughter’s request: “Refusing the proposal was a big challenge for me. Traditionally, a marriage proposal for a growing girl is welcomed, because it is not easy to find well-off grooms. Early marriage has been a practice in our family from generation to generation.”
He continued: “I decided to turn down the proposal keeping in mind my daughter’s desire for higher education. But I knew I would face criticism and, even worse, this would break relations with my in-laws who had arranged the match with a good deal of hope.”
Although it’s illegal, marriages are often arranged for girls soon after puberty, before the legal marital age of 18. “We wish to send a clear message to our parents and the traditional village matchmakers that it is illegal for girls to get married before the age of 18 and illegal to pay dowry” said Nazma Khatun, a student of class nine and a member of the adolescent group.
Afroza’s marriage could be prevented only because her community was well aware of the laws and rights of adolescent girls. As Afroza walks along the bank of a small pond next to her mud house amid a thick bamboo forest, she talks about her future plans: “I wish to do well in my studies and perhaps go on to higher education. One day I see myself as a teacher, maybe in a leading school in the capital.”
She said, “I know in the meantime many proposals will come along but as long as I have the support of the community and my parents, I’m not thinking about marriage for the time being.”