Moriom has a compassionate perspective about her mother's choice to marry her off a few years ago to her neighbor, who was substantially older than her. She was still a child at the time. She says she's not angry about it, though the vacant look in her eyes indicates her resignation.
Holding a wriggling toddler on her hip, the 16-year-old thinks back to when she found out about the arrangement: "I suffered a lot when my mother told me I would marry someone twice my age. But when she said it was impossible to feed me, I didn't want to be a burden." She was told that the family she was marrying into was stable, that it was solid plan for her future. It just wasn't one she was consulted about. Growing up, Moriom had dreamed of being a teacher, but she only made it to grade four; as with most child brides, her marriage brought the end to formal education and the beginning of motherhood.
Moriom's story is depressingly common: One of every 10 girls in the developing world is married before she turns 18, but in Bangladesh, the figure is over six in 10, according to Unicef. And, while the rate has gone down over the last 15 years, the numbers are still staggering. Poverty is a main economic driver of child marriage, but the systemic nature of the practice extends beyond people not being able to take care of their children—child marriage is frequent in cultures that place a high value on female virginity as a currency for a family's status in the community.
Gayatri Patel, a senior policy advocate for gender and empowerment at CARE, an organization committed to empowering women and girls globally, emphasizes the economic pressures that lead to child marriage. "Because the practice of girls' parents paying a dowry to the grooms' family is so common, girls are often seen as an economic burden on already struggling families," she tells Broadly. "And since prevailing custom dictates that the younger the girl, the lower her dowry, poor families have even more reason to marry their daughters off early."
While the practice is often seen as a short-term economic fix for some families, it has long-term and large-scale consequences that perpetuate the cycle of poverty. If a girl doesn't marry early and stays in school instead, she is likely to be healthier and wealthier—and to reinvest her income into her family.
But the reasons for child marriage aren't merely economic, Patel notes. "From a very early age, girls are thought of and treated as less than boys," she says. "When resources are scarce, girls might eat last, or money for their school or doctor fees might be used for other family priorities, leaving them sidelined and vulnerable to poor health and limited opportunities." Dominant social norms typically place women in roles as wives and mothers, she notes, which has a huge impact both on them personally, and on their communities at large: Because women aren't seen as valuable assets economically like their male counterparts, they are less likely to stay in school and develop skills to have jobs making them self-sufficient. High rates of child marriage mean increased risk of maternal mortality and other health risks associated with early pregnancy.
"Girls' futures have already been mapped out for them: marriage in adolescence, childbearing early and often," says Patel. "Their voice or opinion rarely ever counts in changing this course." The practice, notably, has been illegal since 1929, back when Bangladesh was still part of India.
"I don't know how old I was when I got married," Moriom says shyly. "When I ask my mother, she says, 'You were 18.'" It seems somewhat of a running joke in the family in light of the law. While it's not strongly enforced, breaking the law is technically punishable with a month-long jail sentence and a 1000 taka fine, which equates to $10 USD.
Recent developments have human rights experts worried about the future of child marriage in the country: Last month, Bangladesh passed a vague law allowing child marriage without age restriction in "special circumstances," to ensure they are not discriminated against or ostracized by their communities, without delineating what such "special circumstances" would entail. Many outspoken critics of the law say this is a huge step back for a country that publically committed to end child marriage by 2041.
While stories like Moriom's may paint a hopeless picture for girls in Bangladesh, a groundswell of unlikely change is on the way. In a village outside Sylhet, not far where Moriom grew up, a 17-year-old boy named Dipko knocks on a neighbor's door. He doesn't know how many doors he has knocked on; he says it's been too many to count. His mission for the past three years has been to stop the girls in his village from getting married, one conversation at a time. So far, he says, he's convinced 13 families to find alternatives to ease their economic burden and keep their daughters in school.
Dipko's activism began when a social worker found him playing in a field with some friends. She told him about an adolescent club that meets once a week in the area. The program is one of around 6,000 in Bangladesh funded by Unicef focusing on increasing literacy and health education; it also teaches kids the risks of early marriage and child labor, with the aim of empowering them to be their own advocates. Dipko began attending meetings, and quickly became eager to do more to help women and girls in his community. "We learned we have rights and how it's not only bad for girls because they don't go to school, but can hurt their health if they have babies before their bodies are really ready," Dipto explains. "Once I understood how bad it was, I felt like I had to do something."
At times, Dipko says, he's been met with resistance: "Lots of parents tell me to mind my own business, that it is their child and their choice. In response, sometimes I threaten to bring the police. That doesn't always go over well." While he says he's never been physically attacked, there have been threats. That hasn't stopped him, though—instead, it's inspired him to start bringing reinforcements. "Now my friends come, too. We travel in a group. I think it works better."
Young girls in Bangladesh, too, are learning to find their own voice to shape their own futures. Laxmi, who is also 17 and lives in the same village, says she'd be married by now if it weren't for her participation in the club. Limited by a physical disability, Laxmi is what westerners would call a "little person," which makes walking painful. After reaching grade four, she opted to stay at home with her mother and support her by helping with domestic duties while her other siblings went to school. "I could have gone, but I can't walk that far, and my parents can't afford the transportation that would get me there," she says.
While she didn't go to school, the club kept her engaged and learning, and prepared her for what she knew might come one day. Then, shortly after her 15th birthday, she heard her father tell her mother while they were making dinner that it was time, and that Laxmi was ready. "I walked in and told him no, that I wasn't ready, that my body wasn't developed, and besides it is against the law. That he could go to jail."
She says that at first he didn't take her seriously, and was surprised to see her have an opinion at all. "He said that they won't be so poor anymore if they married me off, that it was the right thing for me to do for the family—especially because my condition." She replied that she had a better plan: She wanted to bring in money to the family by learning how to sew with her mother and that she could one day start her own business. She even showed him the math, proving she could earn more on her own than whatever her family would receive as a dowry. "My mother and I make saris together now, and the money I make helps keep my siblings in school," she says, adding that one day she wants to have her own fashion shop where she makes her own clothes.
She insists, "I am not against getting married one day, but now I get to choose who, and when."
This reporting was made possible by a grant through CARE and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.