“My mother got married when she was just 13 and she did not want that life for me”
Tahmina takes a stand against child marriage
“My mother got married when she was just 13 and she did not want that life for me,” says Tahmina. “I am the eldest of my siblings, but I would have had an older brother. He died just as he was born, because my mother was too young to have a baby,” she says.
Yet six months back, this 16-year-old girl from Ukhiya in Cox’s Bazar district in Bangladesh was almost forced to drop out of school and get married herself. Through her courage and with support from her community, she was able to convince her parents that children should not be married.
Poverty driving child marriage
The struggle to make ends meet made Tahmina’s parents decide to marry off their daughter just as she was about to start Grade 10. The family did not have the money to pay Tahmina’s school fees.
Her mother, Arefa Begum explains: “We are very poor people. Tahmina’s father cannot work much because he struggles with asthma. I never wanted my daughter to go through what I went through, but at some point I thought maybe it was always meant to be this way.”
So the family looked for a groom for the girl. Hearing what her parents had decided, Tahmina broke down.
“I felt terrible. I cried every day,” says Tahmina. She reached out to a volunteer of the local Child Protection Community Hub, where she too volunteered as a peer leader. The community facilitator brought a local representative of the Ministry of Women and Children Affaiaofficial to her parents’ house. The community facilitator and ministry official spoke to Tahmina’s parents, explaining the lifelong impact of child marriage on girls.
“I realized later that I was wrong – that child marriage is wrong,” says Arefa, explaining how they came to an understanding that they should not marry off their daughter. “I decided to stop it before it was too late for Tahmina. I did not want her to get hurt forever.”
A widespread social evil
Tahmina has been a peer leader at the Child Protection Community Hub since 2022. She talks to other children about child marriage and child labour to raise awareness. These hubs, run by the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs with support from UNICEF and the European Union, are open to all children and adolescents in the community. Over a thousand such hubs are active throughout Bangladesh, each with two volunteers from the community and two peer leaders.
As a peer leader, Tahmina is aware of the harm that child marriage can cause to a girl. But, very few people in the community are willing to speak about the issue.
“No one talks about how harmful child marriage is for girls. Whenever a girl reaches puberty people start talking about marriage for that girl. That’s what it is like here,” she says. “There was a lot of pressure from people in my community for me to get married. They started this as soon as I turned 12 years old. Everyone was telling my parents to marry me off.”
In Bangladesh, despite progress in recent decades, child marriage remains widespread. Fifty-one per cent of young women are married before they turn 18, and the country has the highest prevalence of child marriage in South Asia and the eighth highest prevalence in the world.
“Child marriage causes lifelong suffering, robbing girls of their childhood and their rights. Not only are girls forced to drop out of school, they face risks of early pregnancy. Both young mothers and the children born to them can suffer from severe health complications,” says Natalie McCauley, Chief of Child Protection, UNICEF Bangladesh. “We need more social workers in Bangladesh to support families, and take preventive action to stop child marriages all over the country.”
Defying harmful norms
For a little while, things were tense between Tahmina and her parents. “I was mad at them for a while and they were mad at me. But now things are okay. They understand that I know what is right for me,” she says.
Her parents are convinced that Tahmina should go to school. Even pressure from others in the community that Tahmina should be married already has not changed their mind.
“I stopped listening to them. I want Tahmina to do what she wants to do. She told me she wants to study – we will do all that we can to make that happen. I want all my children to be educated,” Arefa Begum says.