DHAKA, Oct 25, (RTRS): It was after fl oods washed away her family’s river-front land in Bangladesh’s northern Jamalpur district that Brishti Rafiq’s widowed father brought her to live in Dhaka. “We couldn’t survive like that. We had no property or anything,” she said of her former home. She was only three or four years old when they came to the city, but her father soon arranged a job for her, as a maid for another family.
As she grew, Brishti hoped to be a doctor. But like many young girls in Bangladesh, she faced a different future: marriage at 13, in a union arranged by her father. In this South Asian nation, it is illegal for girls under the age of 18 to marry. But despite government campaigns, many parents do not heed the law. According to data published in 2015 by UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency, 29 percent of Bangladeshi girls were married by the time they were 15, the world’s highest rate.
The figure has since dropped, in part because of efforts to end the practice, but remains at a worrying 18 percent. Experts, however, fear that growing migration to already overcrowded Dhaka, as climate change pressures exacerbate poverty, could result in a new surge in child marriages.
Early marriage not only deprives girls of education and opportunities but increases their risk of death or severe childbirth injuries if they have babies before their bodies are ready, experts say. When Brishti was told she would marry, she opposed the match — but her father would not listen. “He got me married in such a hurry. He didn’t ask a lot of questions,” said the girl, who is today 14. “Just like you got a chicken from the market and you have to cook it tonight,” she said, matter of factly
The marriage didn’t work out — her husband already had another wife, and Brishti’s family couldn’t pay the dowry her new inlaws demanded. The couple divorced, and Brishti moved in with her half siblings and an aunt — until a neighbour tried to sexually assault her one night. Now, divorced and alone at 14, she lives as a lodger in the garment factory where she works each day, one of a growing flood of girls first set adrift by extreme weather and migration, and then trapped by poverty and decisions beyond their control.
Among families who have migrated to Bangladesh’s capital from rural areas, often as a result of losing their land or crops to harsh weather, her experience is increasingly common, activists say. The flood of rural families moving to Dhaka’s slums is growing as people lose their homes, farms and jobs to river-bank erosion and climate change pressures, such as worsening floods and droughts and more intense storms. Research carried out among adolescent girls in the southern district of Barguna by the charity Plan International found that, after powerful Cyclone Sidr hit in 2007, a “significant proportion” of schoolgirls migrated to towns to work as maids or in the garment industry. “The Dhaka I grew up in and the Dhaka of today are worlds apart. It was far safer then,” said Shahana Siddiqui, a gender specialist at the James P. Grant School of Public Health at Dhaka’s BRAC University. Today, “getting harassed on the streets is just part of women’s lives”, she said.
Parents fear their daughters are more likely to be exposed to the advances of men in the city, which could tarnish their reputation. Early marriage is seen as one way of dealing with that problem. “An unmarried girl getting sexually assaulted becomes an issue of family honour,” Siddiqui explained. “Instead of saying the boys shouldn’t be doing it, the idea is, ‘Let’s get the girls married off.’”