By definition, adolescents are persons from 10 – 19 years of age (UNICEF SOWC, 2011). In Bangladesh, there are an estimated 30 million adolescent boys and girls between the ages of 10 – 19 which represents 20 per cent of the population – a significant proportion of the population. The situation of adolescent girls in Bangladesh mirrors that of adult women. It is characterized by inequality and subordination within the family and society. This inequality leads to the widespread practice of child marriage, marginalization or exclusion from health, education and economic opportunities and a vulnerability to violence and sexual abuse.
Bangladesh has one of the highest child marriage prevalence rates in the world. Although the legal age of marriage is 18 for girls and 21 for boys, 33 per cent of adolescent girls are married before the age of 15; and 60 per cent become mothers by the age of 19. Girls are considered eligible for marriage at the onset of menstruation. Boys however become ready for marriage only after several years of adolescence and young adulthood, which is often linked with financial independence.
As adolescent girls enter puberty and their families begin to see them as adults instead of the children they are, their lives become more restrictive. Other practices which exacerbate the situation are sexual harassment by males in their communities when they do go outside or to school. In addition, the practice of the bride’s family paying dowry is still a common practice in Bangladesh although it is illegal. Other reasons for child marriage are poverty, desire to decrease the dowry price, security of girls and sexual harassment (often described in Bangladesh as “eve teasing’), family honour/chastity and lack of empowerment of adolescent girls to negotiate a delay in their marriage.
There are many negative effects related to child marriage – an end to a girl’s education, health problems due to excessive household work, quarrels and violence in the husband’s house when the girl cannot understand and of course risk of the girl’s death as well as that of the baby during delivery. In the in-laws’ house, she often lacks status and bargaining power. She is more vulnerable to all forms of abuse, including dowry related violence. The majority of adolescent brides and their families are uninformed or insufficiently informed about reproductive health and contraception. The maternal mortality rate for adolescents is double the national rate. When adolescent girls are pulled out of school, either for marriage or work, their economic and other non-formal educational opportunities are also curtailed.