A Better Future for Girls in Bangladesh

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“I got married because I quit school,” 15-year-old Mariam A. told Human Rights Watch three days after her marriage to a 21-year-old man. “I studied to class five, but to go to school for class six was too far away and the route was no good,” she said. “The school [where they teach class six] is 3.5 kilometers away.”

Mariam is one of the millions of girls who has married before the age of 15 in Bangladesh. At 29%, the country has the highest rate of child marriage for girls under the age of 15 in the word. Furthermore, 65% of girls in Bangladesh marry before age 18. This makes it  the country with the fourth highest rate of child marriage before 18, behind Niger, the Central African Republic and Chad.

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In certain ways, Bangladesh has succeeded in the arena of women’s rights, experiencing a decline in maternal mortality by 40% between 2001 and 2010. But in other issues, specifically child marriage, the country has been less successful. Several factors have contributed to the child marriage epidemic within the country: poverty, natural disasters, social pressure, harassment, dowry and lack of access to education. In many instances, girls end up marrying because their families can no longer afford to educate them.

This month, the Commision on the Status of Women (CSW) had an event featuring the Population Council who presented their findings on what works to delay child marriage in Bangladesh. They spoke about the BALIKA (Bangladeshi Association for Life Skills, Income, and Knowledge for Adolescents) project, which put a microscope to child marriage and evaluated preventative measures while looking to improve life opportunities for girls in rural areas.

They determined the disadvantages of marrying early: unemployment, harassment, violence – and the advantages of delaying marriage that ensure better health, economic and social outcomes for the girls’ children, family and community.

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With the help of 9,000 girls in 72 communities, the BALIKA project put methods of child marriage intervention to the test. Interventions included education support, life skills training and livelihood training. Another 24 communities served as the control arm of the study and were not provided services. The girls met weekly with mentors and peers in “BALIKA centers,” which helped girls develop friendships, receive training on new technologies and more. The impact? Education programs can reduce the likelihood of child marriage by up to one-third and produce better health, educational, economic and social outcomes for girls. The project underscores the need for safe girls-only spaces where young women can thrive by empowering each other and demonstrating their achievements.

And the BALIKA project isn’t stopping there. They continue to empower and educate girls who, like Mariam, have grown up in a country where child marriage is all too common.

As we end Women’s History Month, we must remember to continue to stand up for the rights of women and intervene when women’s rights are being violated. We should laud the projects like BALIKA, that help implement change. At the same time we need to think about what other measures can be taken to ensure a better future for girls in Bangladesh and around the world.