Child Marriages and Women’s Education in Bangladesh

Bangladesh, a primarily Islamic country in south Asia, has the fourth highest rate of child marriage in the world. Although laws are in place to prevent it, 52% of women aged 20-24 married before they were 18. The two NGOs “Friendship” and “Plan Bangladesh” work to effectively increase women’s education and rights and decrease the number of child marriages occurring.

Women in Bangladesh are often very societally oppressed. Expected to marry at a very young age to a husband who is usually at least ten years older than they are, they are pressured heavily to drop all educational and personal goals in order to tend to their families and produce children. From the time they are born, they are viewed as burdens and many female babies are aborted. The birth of a female child brings shame upon the mother of the child. According to Fairooz Naziba, a Bangladeshi national, women usually fall into one of four educational groups: highly educated and allowed by their husband to pursue their career after marriage, highly educated housewives, educated until middle school then betrothed and expected to serve their husband, or uneducated and working basically as a slave.

Increasing women’s education has been linked to many benefits in Bangladesh. According to an article written by two highly educated Bangladeshi women, if the number of educated women were to increase, the work force would increase, the population growth would drop, women’s health would increase, domestic violence would decrease, and social mobility and family income would increase. However, spending on women’s education has actually been decreasing. In 2013, foreign aid spending on basic education in Bangladesh was $19 per child and in 2014 it fell to $13 per child. Increased spending on education would also help to significantly decrease child marriages.

The NGO “Friendship” focuses heavily on education and operates exclusively within Bangladesh. It mostly works within Chars, or communities built on river islands. Education within these communities is difficult to obtain as they are extremely poor and migrate frequently because of natural disasters. In order to solve this problem, “Friendship” made schoolhouses that could be disassembled and carried. Because of the lack of adequate teachers, they recorded video lessons and started teacher training programs within these communities. They have secondary education programs for those who wish to keep learning and adult learning programs for those who wish to learn to read and write. These programs are important for ensuring that even the poorest communities are literate and have some upward mobility, which will in turn help decrease the number of child marriages.

Some of the driving factors of child marriages include extreme poverty, lack of education, sexual harassment, societal pressure, natural disasters, and inability to pay a dowry. There is a widespread societal fear in Bangladesh that if you wait to marry past 20, it will be very difficult to find a husband.

There are many tangible benefitsto decreasing child marriages. Women who marry earlier give birth earlier. Women who give birth between the ages of 10-14 are five times more likely to die than those who give birth between the ages of 20-24. A drop in child marriages would also allow women to stay in school for significantly longer. This would lead to a drastic increase in the work force and a boost of the economy. Domestic violence and rape would also decrease because women would be more confident and have more time to find a compatible partner.

Despite the government’s promises to decrease the rate of child marriages, they have proposed a new lawthat would allow some women to be married under 18 years of age “under special circumstances”. This law doesn’t require the child’s consent to be married. Beyond this legislation, local officials can often be bribed to forge birth certificates  to allow child marriages. This corruption leads to child marriages being enabled instead of prevented.

Plan International Bangladesh has many programs dedicated to fighting child marriages. They established programs designed to educate women and the larger community about the laws concerning child marriages and why marriages should be delayed. They have also been working to get legislation passed that would oppose child marriages. They set up co-ed clubs in order to encourage relationships between the genders. They also provide at-risk families with financial support. One studyfound that 15 year old girls who were provided with a financial incentive to stay unmarried were 23% more likely to be unmarried by the time they were 16. These girls were also 25% more likely to stay in school. Plan Bangladesh provides both financial incentives and empowerment to young girls, increasing their chances at a later marriage.

Both NGOs proposed provide important services that support young girl’s educations, empowerment, and their right to remain unmarried until they are ready. By investing in these organizations, we help young women all over Bangladesh to make their own choices concerning their lives and change the expectations set for them by society.

Aral Sea – Environmental Catastrophe

In the 1960s, Soviet leaders believed the future lay in collective agrarianism, and they believed irrigating Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan’s arid steppes was their key to the future. They were wrong. Irrigation canals branching off from the Amu Darya (historically Oxus) river fed fields of Soviet cotton and wheat, but over time Central Asia’s longest river waned until a dam put an end to it, changing the Aral Sea in disastrous ways.

With its main tributary gone, the salty Central Asian sea—the fourth largest inland waterbody—was forced to rely solely on the Syr Darya, a smaller river emptying into the Aral Sea’s northern portion. The smaller river could not feed the Aral Sea on its own, and by the 1980s, the sea extended to a mere half of its original size. Soviet irrigation had left the region devastated, and it would only get worse. The significant water loss brought the salinity from 10 to 30 grams per liter—comparable to ocean water. In the 1980s, all the native fish species died, unable to adapt to the drastic and sudden change in salinity, and the region’s once vibrant fishing economy died too. To this day, rusted out boats can be seen laying on the dried up seabed.

Unfortunately, the tragedy does not end there. Up to 75,000 tons of poisonous chemicals and salt drift in the wind annually. Picked up from the dried seabed, these particles often make dangerous salt-storms in the region. The chemicals have been known to cause numerous health issues, and now these health issues are affecting entire populations. Entire cities and villages are being exposed to the various chemicals left over when the sea dried. Infant mortality is up to 110 deaths per 1000 births. To put this in perspective, the global infant mortality rate is 29 per 1000 births. Cases of cancer also rose drastically in this region, with liver cancer alone, doubling between 1981 and 1991. Anemia, stunted growth, and reduced fertility have also become prevalent, as fresh fish disappear from the market. Respiratory diseases from breathing in the toxins, dust, and salt are also rampant.

To make things worse, the Aral Sea was given no official government attention until the fall of the Soviet Union. Unwilling to admit a mistake, the Soviet government let the Aral Sea drain out, moved the fishing industry to the Caspian Sea, and ignored the problem for 30-odd years. Although many now see it as a lost cause, some organizations are trying to help— or at the very least, draw attention to the issue.

One short term solution to the problem has been offered by the Uzbek company, Uzneftegazdobycha— a company that’s willing to invest in the infrastructure needed to drill under the dried seabed to harvest the hydrocarbons there. This, however good for the short term economic health of the region, would further the issue in the long run by removing water from the area.

Although by no means non-governmental, the most successful organization at ameliorating the issue is the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS). Bent on creating a better shared dialogue between central Asian countries, the IFAS was developed to both combat the issues of the Aral Sea and prevent anything like it from ever happening again. To that note, the Uzbek government has been planting thousands of saxaul trees in the Uzbek portion of the dried seabed. Although an admission that the Aral Sea will never be the way it once was, the Uzbek plan is not a bad one. Saxaul trees have been known to fix up to 10 tons of soil, preventing the salt and chemicals from entering the atmosphere and harming people. The current rate of planting, however, is painstakingly slow. Some estimate it would take 150 years to finish.

Perhaps the WeAreWater Foundation could help though. Known for partnering with larger NGOs in regard to water issues, the foundation could very well provide additional assistance in the matter. Contributing to World Bank and UN efforts, NGOs like this one are perhaps the best bet at solving the issue.

Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan

The Kyrgyz Republic, also known as Kyrgyzstan, is a land-locked state in between Kazakhstan and China. Largely Islamic, it is known for its stunning mountains, unique cuisine, and a type of dead-goat polo called ] Kok Boru. Unfortunately, another aspect of Kyrgyzstan that puts it on the map is the practice of bride kidnapping.

The process of bride kidnapping, also known as kyz ala kachuu which translates roughly as “to grab and run,” is a lengthy one. Where a prospective groom, usually with the help of his friends, kidnaps a girl and takes her to his house. The girl is then handed over to the groom’s relatives where they physically try to force a white marriage-scarf upon her head, a symbol of the bride’s consent while trying to convince her that marrying her kidnapper is in her best interests. Once the bride gives in she writes a letter to her parents stating her willingness to marry which is presented to the bride’s parent’s by the groom’s family along with a bride price of livestock and other gifts. If the girl’s parents accept a nikah or Islamic marriage ritual takes place marrying the two and the girl moves into her new husband’s home.

While theoretically the bride kidnapping process allows the girl to refuse marriage, it is rare for the girl, who in many cases has only briefly or never met her kidnapper, to refuse. This is due to the stigma within Kyrgyzstan’s predominantly Islamic culture, which considers the victims of such kidnappings no longer to be virgins. Many kidnapers capitalize on this fact and rape their brides-to-be directly after kidnapping. The stigma is so great that the girls who do decide to refuse, who are now considered not ideal for marriage, are often not accepted by their families and in some cases driven to suicide.

Even though bride kidnapping is technically illegal in Kyrgyzstan the practice is still widespread. Hard data is hard to obtain but estimates range that between 20% to 50% of women in Kyrgyzstan have been kidnapped. Its defenders claim that bride kidnapping has been a part of Kyrgyz tradition for centuries. Although some scholars dispute these claims there are old Kyrgyz oral stories where bride kidnapping was done consensually, as a form of elopement. It should be pointed out that many of the kidnappings are in the spirit of these stories, consensually, as a strange proposing ritual. However, the tradition has also been expanded to include non-consensual marriages, and although the murky social view of consent has blurred the lines, one in three kidnappings are believed to be nonconsensual.

There have been some efforts to combat the issue of bride kidnapping, but they have been largely ineffective due to its traditional status, the government’s reluctance to enforce anti-kidnapping measures, and social leaders’ unwillingness to speak out against it. To be able to oppose bride kidnapping effectively, organizations must simultaneously deal with the practice on both the cultural and governmental levels. I believe two organizations could be able to take a decent stab at it: Musawah, and UN Women.

Musawah (Arabic for equality) is an international Islamic women’s rights NGO based in Malaysia. Founded in 2009 by an international coalition of Islamic feminists and the Malaysian NGO, Sisters in Islam (SIS) Musawah’s goal is to champion women’s rights in the Islamic world through feminist interpretations of the Qur’an and other holy Islamic works. It and SIS have been very successful in starting a grassroots Islamic feminist movement in Malaysia. The hope is that since Kyrgyzstan is a predominantly Islamic, activism from an Islamic NGO will not be seen so much as meddling from outside forces on Kyrgyz tradition. Instead of trying to change tradition by attacking it with western ideals using religious values would be much more effective. This is especially relevant considering that Islam forbids forced marriages.

UN Women is an entity of the United Nations focused on “gender equality and the empowerment of women.” It works with governments around the world to further women’s rights in accordance with CEDAW. Backed by the United Nations, UN Women carries a pretty big stick, and could be used to put pressure on Kyrgyzstan’s government to help enforce its anti-kidnapping laws.

If this strategy of simultaneously employing UN Women to hit bride kidnapping high while using Musawah to hit it low was implemented, I believe that actual change to help stop nonconsensual kidnapping could happen.