Open Letter to the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs

In particular, research suggests that sexual violence, including coerced sex, is high when marital age is low because at 16 our daughters have very little idea about sex. You can thank the lack of sex-education in Bangladesh. And you can thank the tabooing of sex in Bangladesh.
EARLY-MARRIAGE-AMARHEALTH

By Nadine Shaanta Murshid for AlalODulal.org

Ministry of Women and Children Affairs
Government of Bangladesh
October 6, 2014

To Whom It May Concern

Dear Sir,

I am writing on behalf of my 16-year old daughter. She lives with me in our one and a half bedroom apartment, where that half bedroom is hers. But it became hers only a few months ago when she told me she needs privacy. And I understand that she does. She is a child experiencing new things – her body, for one. Her emotions for the cute boy in her coaching class. Her sense of self. She is developing new ideas, new to her at the least. She talked to me at length the other day about farm food vs. organic food and how she can’t believe there’s organic food in the West while that’s normal food here in Bangladesh. I had smiled for a long time that day. She’s learning to take pride in her world, in her country, you see?

But then you tell me that my daughter may be eligible for marriage? Even worse – you tell her that she is ready for marriage and you’re about to change the legal marriage age? First of all, what happened to the whole “‘balyo biye’ is evil” narrative? That’s what I’ve been hearing for ages. Just from a policy awareness perspective this doesn’t make sense – the pitfalls of balyo biye (child marriage) is well documented. You can’t just suddenly pretend you lied all these years. It was you who preached against child marriage? And rightly so! So what’s going on here? Who are you pandering to? And why? There are rumors that it’s a counter-intuitive way to reduce child marriage of children of 15 years and younger, it’s a way to prevent runaway marriages. Do you mean to suggest that there is  a difference between a girl who runs away to get married at 15 and one who is legally married at 16 in terms of what will be expected of her? Or, is it to assuage our moral compunctions by legitimizing the lowered marriageable age? Maybe we should have lunch one day and you can explain it to me. I won’t expect you to eat much, don’t worry.

Secondly, who are you to decide when is a good time for my child to get married? The only person who is capable of making that decision is her. Not even me. HER. (Hopefully, I will always have the power of persuasion in case she decides to marry the next man who tells her she’s beautiful.)

Thirdly, knowing your efforts in enacting the Violence Against Women Act, I know you would like to know this – research indicates (including my own) that violence against women perpetrated by her husband is higher when women are young (men use violence to punish/reprimand their wives much like they would with their children), and is much higher when the age difference between the marital dyad is high. In particular, research suggests that sexual violence, including coerced sex, is high when marital age is low because at 16 our daughters have very little idea about sex. You can thank the lack of sex-education in Bangladesh. And you can thank the tabooing of sex in Bangladesh. After you’re done thanking you must realize that by allowing 16 year old girls – girls not women – to get married you are allowing men to rape their minor wives. You forget, perhaps, that many men still think of sex as their marital right, duty of a dutiful wife. And may I remind you, because you already know this, that at 16 a girl has no ability to consent. To anything. She can’t even consent to being part of my research study without parental consent.  And yet, here she is expected to consent to something that she will have to live with for the rest of her life? With advancements in modern medicine and nutrition – that means a very, very long time for a lot of people. And these girls are expected to make this decision at an age when they are not matured enough to do so? Please explain to me how this makes sense.

Dear, dear Sir. I am taking it upon myself to plead with you. Please let our daughters be. Please let them be the teenagers that they are. Please allow them to live a little, explore themselves, explore the world. Please don’t make it okay for parents to expect their 16 year old daughters to feel like a “burden” on the family. If you want to help, really help, ensure that they complete their high school education. Ensure that they learn a skill or two so that they can use those skills to earn an income. Help them learn so that they can follow their dreams, a career, higher education – if they so wish. Help them be independent, critical, self-sufficient. Help parents raise sons and daughters who don’t have to rely on marriage to meet their personal goals. Help parents be good parents and not pass on their parenting responsibilities to a man they don’t know. These children are the future. Don’t let them mess up just as yet.

There are many divides in this tiny nation of ours, much like the rest of the world: class divide, income divide, urban-rural divide, education divide. Can we not create a marriage divide? Because you know, you must know, that this law will affect different groups differentially. It’s not your rich neighbor who will be the first to marry off his daughter, even though your neighbor’s daughter might be the first to threaten her parents with it. It won’t be your high school friend who will have to worry about her son’s 16 year old bride who doesn’t know how to do housework. It won’t be your daughter’s best friend who will be forced to sleep with a strange man even though she was never allowed to speak to a man before. It won’t be your village relative who will invite you to the akika of his first grandson, even though his daughter was born just a few years ago. It’s won’t be your niece who will hang herself from a ceiling fan because she could no longer stand being a child bride. Think about it. Think about how hard it is for parents to deal with neighborhood thugs and religious zealots and do something about that. Think about how these same thugs will continue to harass girls even after they are married off. Think about how they will have to bear with the harassment and potential abuse in the absence of understanding parents and the presence of judgmental husbands who will blame the girls for the unwanted attention they receive. Think. That is all I ask.

My 16 year old is getting ready for school. She’s a smart one but I worry if she will ever get into university given how many seats there are for the number of students who want a university education in Bangladesh. It’s inspiring, really, to see how many children want to pursue higher education. But not everyone gets in.  Where do they end up going, I wonder?  But that’s for another letter to another person. For now, please see to it that we’re not breaking all rules regarding children’s rights and their right to not being married or married off.

Sincerely yours,

A concerned mother

12 comments

  1. I think emotional and personal consideration are not a good guide to making policies on any issues, let alone the legal age of marriage for girls. Wise people with good understanding of social issues, social norms, cultural values, religious rules and influence, human nature, sex drives, and experiences of other countries should make rules and policies and review and revise periodically to ensure policies are fit for purpose.

    I feel this article by Nadine Shaanta Murshid is out of context in the case of Bangladesh and also in terms of what is happening around the world. I feel politicians should make laws and policies to reflect society as a whole and not one person’s emotional state and initiate steps to eliminate / reduce abuse or anything that are harmful to citizens. One should take steps to empower girls so they can choose what is best for them and bring in policies that deter and punish abusers, rather than say girls cannot marry at the age of sixteen. Empowered girls should be allowed to pursue their own way in life.
    If one argues that it is because girls experience discrimination in Bangladesh and do not get the right environment to become empowered then do you thing that they will become empowered at the age of 18 when they are still under the control of their fathers, brothers and social systems. I don’t think so.
    I just had a quick look on the internet and according to wikipedia the age of marriage for girls in USA is 18 but most states allow 16 if parents give consent. In UK it is UK – 16: Australia – 18 but can marry 16 with court’s approval; India – 18 but 16 with parental consent; Indonesia – 16, Germany – 18 but 16 with parental consent.

    I think the government in Bangladesh can explore lowering the age of marriage but individuals and groups should also oppose of support but that should be based on credible studies on current practices and problems and how people deal with this issues around the globe. I feel emotional views based on personal experience is not a guide to creating laws for all.

    • Empowered girls should be allowed to do what they want? What does that even mean? At least the letter refers to research that shows that marital age matters in terms of domestic abuse. What research are you pointing to? Or do you think adopting policies just because they’ve been adopted in the US, Germany, India and so on is “research”?

      • What is “empowered girls”? A definition would be helpful. And from the epistolary nature of this article, the language employed, it is quite evident that this post wanted some discussions off the ground, not on the article, rather on the subject matter. It would serve the purpose to keep this discussion in the public domain and not left to inept politicians, policymakers or bureaucrats. Some informed discussion would really be welcome.

    • Very well written response. Yes, any opposition to proposed changes should be based on facts and not emotional personal stories. It seems to me a lot of people use “kannakati” and “Chillachilli” in policy debate.

    • I look forward to your research on this. Thanks for your comment. I guess it wasn’t obvious, but this is not a research paper. Wasn’t intended as one either. Does your research show that early marriage leads to positive outcomes for girls?

  2. This is so sad! Instead of going forward, we are going backward!! This is a crazy solution of the mentioned problem. Wake up Bangladesh.

  3. Muhammad, there is loads of very good evidence about the negative impacts of early marriage:

    http://www.worldbank.org/content/dam/Worldbank/document/Gender/enGENDER%20IMPACT%20-%20Research%20Brief%20Early%20Marriage%2008.07.pdf

    http://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/3200264/ambrus_earlymarriage.pdf?sequence=2

    “Steps to empower girls”: how about education? The evidence suggests that later marriage leads to more education, and more education leads to later marriage.

  4. Benjamin my point was that it was not about whether there are evidence for or against. My point was that people should bring evidence when arguing their case, rather than make an emotional appeal from personal feelings and opinions. Most countries around the world if I am right, currently, allows legal marriage at 18 but with parental consent 16 and some countries go down below 16 and some countries have legal marriage set at more than 18.

    The author did not present any evidence but she asserts that there is evidence and does not discuss what evidence.

    I don’t know how old the girl in the picture is but she looks like a little girl to me. At sixteen, where most countries allow girls to marry, girls do not look like the little girl like in the picture. I can understand the author feeling that [a] sixteen years old is still a child but that is just based on personal feelings and views.

    We need to see evidence from lots of researches done by lots of different bodies to see the consequences of marriage at sixteen, at seventeen, at eighteen, etc. This will help us develop a good grasp of the issue and help develop informed policies. Many different issues are at stake – education, social norms, the fact that our society heavily discourages sex before marriage, and also the negative social consequences of marriage age 18, from the points of views of families and parents impacted by the policy, etc., who may be lobbying for the lowering age of marriage to sixteen.

    Ben after I read the Harvard report I will come back with more comments. A quick glance at the report it is clear that the story is more complex than what the author asserts and what you claim.

  5. This isn’t an empirical piece, i don’t think it’s meant to be. It doesn’t negate the serious messages. I wonder if there is also a debate here about the taboo side of sex and dating which culturally makes it easier for some communities to want to support lowering the legal age of marriage. Of course the danger here is that while dating is temporary and allows young people to have sexual relations without stigma, marriage is more permanent, and locks young women and girls into an institution that’s difficult to leave. This debate on empowerment is a bit like the debate on free speech for me, it’s not unconditional that we have free speech, i’d be happy to curtail it if it damages and harms others. I also think girls marrying at the age of 16 isn’t de facto harmful always, it will have negative consequences because the institution of marriage itself is too strong to leave behind should the girl in question find herself in a bad marriage. Also, I am constantly told these days, in all countries, while young men and women are dating and engaging in sexual activity at a younger age, it doesn’t mean they’d be ready to enter into adult relationships or marriages.

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