Spain recently raised its minimum age for marriage from 14 to 16, and also upped the age for consent from 13 to 16. The BBC said last Thursday that, while only 365 marriages involving people under the age of 16 have occurred in Spain since 2000, there were 2,678 such marriages in the ‘90s and 12,867 in the ‘80s.
All I could think when I read those numbers was WHAT. THE. FUCK. Spain is the 31st richest country in the world, with an estimated GDP of $33 billion in 2014. I was so surprised to learn that a developed country like Spain had only just begun to take steps to protect its girls from forced marriage before the age of 16.
I spoke with Heather Barr, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, over the phone on Friday morning about this. Barr and her colleagues in the organization’s Asian women’s rights division published an extensive report in June focusing on the issue of child marriage, specifically in Bangladesh. The report paints a devastating picture of what it’s like to be a child bride in that country; a portrait of girls with no rights, no voice and no freedom.
During our conversation, Barr explained why child marriage is so common in Bangladesh and similar countries, and also told me the practice is far more widespread than most of us think. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
I found the statistics about child marriages in Spain in the ‘80s and ‘90s to be shocking. The numbers were extremely low compared to that of modern day Bangladesh, but still, I had no idea that such a developed country had such an archaic problem not too long ago. Would you say that child marriage is a lot more prevalent than people expect?
Yes. I think people would be surprised by how many countries there are where child marriage is actually permitted, including a lot of Western countries, and how many child marriages actually take place in those countries.
This report focused on Bangladesh because it has the highest rate in the world of girls actually marrying before the age of 15, but the numbers below age 18 are shocking, too. In Bangladesh, 65 percent of girls are married before they turn 18. People think that this is a problem that only happens in Bangladesh; not in places like Spain, the UK or the US.
But it does?
It does, yes. For different reasons and in different ways and on a different scale, but it’s a problem everywhere. You have girls and boys marrying early, and their lives being harmed as a result.
What are the regions with the highest child marriage rates?
The top four countries are Niger, Chad, the Central African Republic and Bangladesh. The top countries that really have a serious problem with child marriage are in Africa, but because of the large numbers, particularly in India, South Asia is almost on par with Africa in terms of the number of girls who are affected.
The report HRW issued about child marriages in Bangladesh was extremely unsettling, particularly because of the reasons the parents you spoke with gave for why they chose to marry off their daughters so young. Can you tell me a bit more about why parents feel compelled to force their girls to marry?
Doing the research for this report was fascinating and heartbreaking. I traveled around the country; I went to five different districts in four regions in Bangladesh. I tried to talk to as many married girls as I could, and also to some of their families and the community leaders. What I heard most was that families were poor and couldn’t afford education. There was a perception among all of the people that I talked to that a girl can’t get married while she’s in school. But if a girl’s out of school, then it makes sense for her to get married as soon as possible if she’s gone through puberty.
This is so frustrating because one of the things that the Bangladeshi government has worked very hard at, actually, is increasing access to education and particularly increasing the participation of girls in education. How is it that a family can’t actually afford to send a girl to school when school is free? Well, school isn’t actually free. There might not be any tuition fees, but you still have to get to school and back, which might mean paying for transportation. You’ve got to pay for notebooks, pencils, pens, uniforms and exam fees, and sometimes for tutoring fees and for additional guidebooks that teachers tell students that they need to buy.
You might think, well, how much money could that actually add up to? Not that much, except that some of these families were saying to me that they didn’t have enough food to eat. One girl said to me that her family ate every other day. So if you’re feeding your children every other day, then you can’t afford a pencil. It felt that the government and the donors supporting education had really gone 80 percent of the way, or even 90 percent of the way, toward making education accessible, but that 20 percent or 10 percent that’s left is completely insurmountable for some of the poorest families, and it results in girls getting married.
Some of the other things I heard about where about social pressures. Religious leaders would say to the families, “Your daughter is getting old. Why isn’t she married yet?”
How old is too old for them?
Sometimes comments are made about girls who are 14 or even 13. There’s a feeling among a lot of people that once you’ve gone through puberty, then you’re ready. If you’ve gone through puberty and you’re not getting married or no one’s planning a marriage for you, then there’s something strange going on.
The law in Bangladesh says that you can’t get married if you’re a girl before 18 if you’re a girl, 21 if you’re a boy. But that law is not being enforced. I met some local government officials who I thought were really trying to make it a mission to prevent child marriages. But in the same community, in the same government offices, there were other officials who supplement their salaries by selling forged birth certificates, saying that girls are 18 when in fact they’re much younger. Those birth certificates are being used to allow those families to marry those girls off.
I was probably the most surprised by the effect that climate change has on child marriages. Why does it play such a big role?
This is a fascinating part of the research, actually. Bangladesh is one of the countries in the world that’s most affected by natural disasters and it’s also one of the countries in the world that’s most vulnerable to climate change. A lot of the families I interviewed lose their crops every year or sometimes twice a year because of flooding. These are often people who are not even selling those crops; they’re just eating them. That’s their food. The flooding is just another factor that pushes those families deeper and deeper into poverty and desperation, and makes it less likely that they can afford any of these costs for education, that they can feed their children and makes it more likely that they’ll see marrying off their daughters as early as possible seem a means of survival for the family.
With Cyclone Aila a few years ago, there were some cases where families lost everything. Some of them dealt with it by trying to hand their daughters off to someone else, so that they had one less mouth to feed.
The most interesting part, I thought, was the case of the river erosion, because it is different from flooding and cyclones in the sense that it’s a disaster that is foreseeable. If your house is in an area that’s affected by erosion, you’re going to know 2, 3, 4 years ahead of time that the erosion is coming and that your house and your land are going to be taken, even though you might have some time to prepare. One of the ways that families told me they prepared was by marrying off their daughters. Once they lost their homes, they knew they’d be displaced and would lose contact with the community where they were respected and where they knew other families and could arrange a marriage based on those relationships.
One of the things that was saddest about the research is that parents that decide to marry off their daughters so young were often doing that feeling like it was the best thing they could do to try to protect their daughters. It is so unacceptable that people find themselves in a world of options so poor that that’s the way things look to them.
You mentioned puberty earlier. I was wondering, do the parents always wait until their daughters have their first period before they push them into marrying?
In the cases I saw in Bangladesh, typically yes. I came across two cases where girls had married before puberty out of dozens and dozens of them. In one of those cases, the parents told me that the girl was not going to live with her husband until after she reached puberty. Of course, I don’t know if that is true or not. In the other case, a girl had married a guy who had abducted her.
That varies in some other countries, though. There are other countries where practices are different and you may see girls, and sometimes boys as well, marrying before puberty.
And what was the general consensus of the girls that you spoke with that had been married off young? How did they feel about their marriages?
I asked all of them two questions: what was your opinion of getting married? And how has life been since you got married? When I asked them about their opinion, about half of them seemed confused by the question and said, “It’s not up to me.” They just had so little feeling that they had any choice in the matter, the question almost didn’t make sense to them. The other half typically said that they didn’t want to get married and that they argued a lot with their parents. I didn’t meet any girls that said they were excited to get married. I’d say the range of emotion was between serious and resigned.
In terms of how life was after they got married, there was a few that talked about how they have more food now than they did before. That life was all right; life was good. Some of them said that their in-laws had been very kind to them. But many more seemed to be having a very difficult time. Imagine being a 13-year-old mother when you didn’t want to get married and wished you were still going to school.
Generally speaking, if a girl marries at 12, how long until she gives birth to her first child?
It depends. The girls that I interviewed in Bangladesh seemed very likely to get pregnant very soon. A lot of them felt they were expected to, or felt that they should because it is what their in-laws wanted. Sometimes there are consequences for girls if they don’t get pregnant. They’re seen as not being good wives or acceptable wives, and they’re vulnerable to abandonment, being thrown out by their husbands and replaced by another wife.
There were a lot of cases where it seemed like the girls wanted to delay pregnancy — sometimes that their husbands or in-laws would have been willing for them to delay pregnancy as well — but they just didn’t have access to information about contraception or access to contraceptive supplies. There was one girl that I interviewed who had actually stolen some of her mother’s birth control pills and hidden them from her husband, and was taking them because she was so determined not to get pregnant right away. But she didn’t know how often you were supposed to take them, so she didn’t take them every day and she got pregnant anyway.
Would you say that the husbands are generally quite older than the wives?
They were almost always a bit older, but it wasn’t decades older. It was four to 15 years older. Significant differences in age but not, you know, a 13-year-old and a 60-year-old.
Are child brides subjected to domestic violence? I saw statistics in your report that women are more likely to be victims of abuse if they are under 15 when they get married than if they are over 25 when they get married.
There’s been global research on this question that has shown that girls who marry younger are more likely to be the victims of domestic violence than women who marry at an older age. Think about the power dynamic in a family or in a relationship. If a girl marries at 12 or 15, not only is she going to have a very, very difficult time standing up for herself and protecting herself from abuse, she’s also probably not going to meet the expectations that her in-laws have.
These brides are being chosen by the husband’s parents, not by the husbands. And the husband’s parents are often looking for another set of hands to help around the house, as well as a bride for their son. A 12-year-old who perhaps was studying before but now is expected to cook, clean, look after domestic animals and help with agriculture is likely not going to perform the tasks in a way that the in-laws find acceptable.
I didn’t specifically ask girls about abuse, though. All I asked them is how life has been since they got married. Stories just poured out of them about being abused, about being hit, punched and raped. Really, really distressing stories.
One of the things you have to remember, also, is that when a girl gets married in Bangladesh, it’s normally the first time she’s ever left her parents’ home. She’ll have gone to school in the day but the rest of the time, she’s with her parents. The moment she gets married, she’s taken and she lives in a house with a bunch of strangers who may actually not live in the same community as her parents. She may even be a day’s travel away from where her parents’ live, which means that she’s got no one to turn to if she’s facing abuse or if she’s unhappy. There’s no one to help. It’s hard to overstate how traumatic or frightening that must be.
Is there anything girls can do to avoid such marriages? What backlash does a girl face if she refuses to go through with the marriage?
A girl should be able to tell her teacher or have her friends tell her teacher. She should be able to go to the local government. The school should be watching to see if a girl drops out and report to the authorities to follow up.
The law is clear: Child marriage is a crime in Bangladesh. Every single one of these girls is the victim of a crime by people who have broken the law and who, under Bangladeshi law, are subject to arrest. The fact that arrests never happen is extraordinary. Unfortunately, until the government is prepared to actually enforce the law, there’s not going to be a lot of help that is available to the girls.
The way the situation is now, there’s virtually nothing a girl can do except for trying to convince her parents to not go ahead with the marriage.
What are human rights organizations like HRW doing to help these child brides?
There’s a really extensive network of really good NGOs who are doing community awareness about child marriage and trying to assist individual girls, but the solution can’t just be NGOs. The solution has to be the government itself enforcing the government’s own law. The government also has to try to provide a safety net to families that are so poor that they can’t afford a pen.
I understand that Bangladesh is a poor country, but it is actually expected to become a middle-income country by 2021, so I would suggest that the problem isn’t actually a lack of resources. It’s a failure to allocate those resources toward this particular problem.
Another thing I want to mention is about girls’ control over their choices and their sexual and reproductive health. The solution to a lot of these issues has to be about empowering girls and giving girls control over their decisions, and giving them information about reproductive health, about sexuality, about what puberty actually means. The information that they need to be able to make their own choices about relationships, whether they’re going to have children or not, whether they’re going to have sex or not. That’s very hard, of course, in a culture that’s quite conservative, as Bangladesh is. But that ultimately has to be a big part of the real solution, and that part has to move forward, even if it takes time.
Lisa Ryan is a writer in Brooklyn. She likes Tim Hortons and aspires to brunch with Amal Clooney. Follow her on twitter: @lisarya.
Images via Omi for Human Rights Watch.