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.
By Nadine Shaanta Murshid for AlalODulal.org
October 6, 2014
To Whom It May Concern
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 our 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.
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.
A concerned mother