“Early Child Marriage is a criminal offence and does not happen in this area,” said an Imam (person who leads prayers in a mosque) during an interview as part of the research for the Preventing Child Marriage in Urban Slums project. The 41-year-old man was based at a mosque in Bashantek (an urban slum in the north of Dhaka city), one of the main data collection sites under this study.
His responses during the interview showed that he was well aware of the negative impacts of child marriage: the social, mental and physical harms of such a dangerous traditional practice. He mentioned that when a boy is married early it is difficult for him to support his family. Similarly, for a girl, she would lack the physical and mental maturity to take responsibilities after marriage. But what shocked me the most was that he seemed to live in a bubble of denial where he believed that the stories about early marriage from around the area were all rumors because the slum dwellers were well aware that it was an illegal practice.
Bangladesh still has one of the highest child marriage rates worldwide. Yet the perception of some, like this Imam, remains clouded as they continue to label such cases as rumors and disregard them. When we asked the Imam whether he knew of any programmes raising awareness about early child marriage in the community, he said he didn’t know of any because he was too busy. Even as an influential member of the community whom the programmes would typically leverage to spread the word to slum dwellers, he seemed aloof about the cause. After some time he mentioned, “Actually yes, I’ve heard of a non-governmental organisation which performs dramas depicting the harms of early child marriage.”
Later on, as the interview proceeded, he began to open up and shared eight cases of early child marriage that took place in the slum, with us. However, he believed all of these cases were unique since they had legitimate and valid reasons behind them. In one case he mentioned that the groom lived abroad and thus the physical distance between the man and his under-aged bride would make it impossible for them to engage in physical relations, and therefore the legality of the marriage was defensible. When the groom would return to Bangladesh again after five years, the girl would have by then reached the legal age.
This particular case seemed justifiable to the Imam mainly due to his perception and attitude towards child marriage. He could explain the theories against early marriage, yet in practice his beliefs caused him to view marriage only as a reason for procreation and in turn, physical intimacy. For instance, he mentioned that a 12-year-old girl couldn’t get married, because she is not of childbearing age. “How can it happen?” he exclaimed. “She has not even reached the age of menstruation!”
Validation for early child marriage still persists in the minds of many and remains a deeply embedded cultural issue in Bangladesh. People’s attitudes and strong justification for this practice have forced law enforcement to create loopholes around existing regulations against early marriage, like a controversial law that was passed last year regarding “special circumstances” such as rape and unplanned pregnancy to validate certain cases. Programmes and interventions must also acknowledge such wide range of perceptions and address those who do not view early child marriage as the problem it is. These individuals can be identified by the fact that they will give you an “ideal answer,” but refuse to put it to practice when it is necessary to stop child marriage. By examining the attitude and perceptions of community members, we can better understand how to prevent early child marriage and inform future programmes and policies to end this harmful practice once and for all.
This blog was written by Aneeka Fatema, research intern at BRAC JPGSPH. Special acknowledgement to Mamun-ur-Rashid, a legal research associate at BRAC JPGSPH, who conducted the interview with the imam who is the subject of this article.