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28 August 2000

Young women going into the dark

In Bangladesh, families push their daughters into marriage when they are still children because they

By Jeremy Seabrook

From the three months I spent recently in Bangladesh, a recurring story haunts my memory. It concerns women who had been married at the age of 12 or 13. In village after village, they spoke of their fear and anxiety when told of their imminent marriage. Often, their husband was much older – in his twenties or thirties. Sometimes, they were a second or third wife. Some felt revulsion; many were not ready for sexual relations. They well know, from bitter experience, that early marriage is not a good thing.

Yet repeatedly, it turned out, they had married off their own daughters at the same age. Why, when they knew from their own marriage that it was shocking and horrifying to young girls; when they had been made ill by premature sex and sexual assault, by bearing a child at the age of 13 or 14; when they had suffered from anaemia and malnutrition? Why did you marry your daughters so young, when it had been such a frightening ordeal for you? They shrugged, sucked the edge of their sari between their teeth, turned away. What to do? Clearly, something was not being said.

I sat in a village close to Bogra, in the north of the country, not far from the ancient Maurya city ruins of Mahasthangarh. Half a dozen women gathered close to the stove where husked paddy was being boiled. An idyllic scene: the sun on pale grey clay earth; a tethered cow, bronze chickens running around the yard; aluminium vessels glinting in the sunlight; a rick of golden straw for cattle food; a store of kindling for cooking fires; a creeper over the roof of an outhouse, heavy with yellow flowers and green gourds. The potatoes had just been harvested – a pyramid of purple, waiting for prices to rise before being sold. A fragile prosperity, a modest well-being, the first generation to have known some small security. Why this sacrifice of daughters?

The children are given in marriage (and the very phrase suggests the reality that they are not in any way agents in the process). With them is given dowry, what in Bengali is called the “demand” – jewellery, a bicycle, a wristwatch, some furniture, “cash-money”, according to the economic status of the family.

Families marry their daughters off early because they believe marriage is “safe”. In rural areas, where feudal families still dominate the power structure, a young man from such a family may do as he pleases. He can use a village girl sexually with little risk of punishment – after all, her parents depend on his family land for their livelihood. And once that happens, the girl is noshto – spoiled. Her chances of marriage are ruined, and she becomes a source of perpetual shame. The anxiety of mothers is to place their girls out of the way not only of the attentions of social superiors, but also of the danger of free sentimental attachments to boys of their own class.

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Marriage is not the only place of safety for poor girls. Many poor parents in the villages send their daughters – as young as eight or nine – to work as domestic servants to middle-class households in Dhaka and other cities. They often work for no salary, or simply for their keep and a few second-hand clothes. Parents believe that, in the seclusion of private apartments, the children will be safe from the attentions of men. They also assume, among those of higher social status, levels of morality and respect for their daughters that are not always justified. Certainly, most young girls working as servants never leave their place of work – you can see them in the middle-class areas of Dhaka, behind ornamental grilles; lonely, isolated waifs.

Just how secure they are in these places is another question. In the city, separated from their families, they are often abused, overworked and, not infrequently, sexually assaulted by the house-owner or his sons. The mothers of the little maids, who sleep on verandahs, in corners or corridors, hope – as sometimes does indeed happen – that their employers will find a marriage partner for them, perhaps a driver or cook from their own household.

But marriage is felt to be the safest place of all. In the villages, many girls put on the black burkha, which covers them from head to foot, denoting the status of belonging to a man – and therefore beyond the reach of others. I met a group of young women in Mirsarai, about 60 kilometres from the fundamentalist area around Chittagong. Most were wearing the burkha. They had had little schooling – one or two years at most in the madrasa, the Islamic school.

“The burkha is hot and uncomfortable,” a mother tells me. “We don’t want our daughters to follow us, but everything depends upon husbands and fathers. Small boys and girls work together in the fields, looking after animals, transplanting rice, harvesting, weeding, gathering firewood. They play together. But from the age of ten or 11, they must be separated.”

Aklima, 19, wears an orange sari, bangles at her wrist, green plastic sandals. She is due to be married, and will go into the burkha from which she will never again emerge in public. “Going into the dark”, she calls it. The girls know of more than one woman who has committed suicide in the “safety” of her marriage.

Indeed, marriage often proves as insecure a shelter as the fragile bamboo and tin of home, which is liable to be smashed to matchwood by cyclones and storms. The girl-wives may be abandoned or punished if their families fail to deliver increased dowry. They must give cash, a TV, a bicycle, gold, ornaments. In fact, the availability of consumer goods has intensified the “demand” – archaic customs linked to modernisation create an even more intractable confinement for women. Some, rejected or – more rarely – fleeing an intolerable life, find their way into the sex industry: at Daulatdia, a river crossing and railway junction about 60 miles from Dhaka, there is a whole town whose only occupation is sex work, where about 1,800 women live.

Many, like Parveen and Morjina, who are 15, escape from brutal husbands. They send to their villages money that they earn in the rented tin shacks where truck and bus drivers provide a constant clientele. Unwilling to shame their families, they say they work in the garment factories. In fact, “choices” for women in Bangladesh generally involve clothing – they can make clothes in the factories, wash clothes as domestic labour or take their clothes off for strangers in the brothels.

Many non-governmental and charitable organisations are working with poor women in Bangladesh. They say they are raising consciousness, making women aware of their rights, teaching literacy, empowering them, giving them the confidence to resist their destiny. But perhaps the most significant agent of liberation for young women has been the garment industry itself: although the work is exploitative (a 12- to 14-hour day is not uncommon), the factories of Dhaka and Chittagong have drawn a million young women into employment. There, they discover an informal solidarity, a glimpse of an alternative future, a possibility of economic independence.

But not for those who remain in the countryside – the overwhelming majority of the people. Jehanara lives in a small town in North Bengal, called Panchbibi – “Five Wives” in Bengali. With no schooling, she was married at 12. A year later, she gave birth to a daughter. Her husband, already in his twenties, was a drinker, and beat her; she was divorced at 15. She returned to her father’s house and worked as a domestic servant. At 17 and a half, she was married again. She didn’t know that she was to be this man’s third wife. Her parents did know, but because it was a matter of such importance to get their daughter “settled”, they did not tell her. When she went to his house, she found two other women. She wanted to leave, but her family told her that it was “God’s decision”, and Jehanara accepted it.

This man owned some land, and the three wives worked together. Jehanara says he wanted labour, not wives – labour he could get for nothing. He married a fourth wife. Jehanara left him, and took her daughter to work for a middle-class family. From the age of six, her daughter was sweeping the floor, washing vessels and dishes. Jehanara later went to live with her sister and got a job, cooking and cleaning the office of an NGO. The daughter from her first marriage was married at 14. Her younger daughter, Shiril, still lives with her. She is now ten.

Jehanara sits with one arm protectively around Shiril and says: “Many poor families think a growing girl should not stay in a house where she might meet a man who is not her brother or father. A girl must be made ‘respectable’ by marriage. Even if he abuses her and leaves her afterwards. I don’t want this for my daughter.” She holds Shiril close, her thin arms the only protection against the child’s fate.

Keeping girls from early marriage is not a question of education. Women know. They need no instruction in their own position – their experience is too bitter and too violent. It is a question of social conformity, of a belief in marriage that overrides all other considerations. These young women are both the site and the victims of a profound cultural struggle in Bangladesh: the conflict between dhormo (religious/moral duty) and fundamentalism; between the open and liberal humanism of traditional Bengali culture – in which Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and animism coexisted – and the disciplined asperities of a less tolerant form of Islam.

It is up to the women to resolve this cultural contradiction. They have to accommodate their lives to a “modernised” archaism that makes of them objects to be given in marriage, as though they were themselves part of the jewellery or consumer goods of dowry.

Many poor women continue to place their daughters as early as they can – even though they know the girls will be thrust into premature sexuality, womanhood and childbearing while they are still themselves children. Among the growing number of migrants to the cities, where women have long been a part of industrial life and are organised collectively, the imprisoning factory also becomes, paradoxically, a means of deliverance. But, for the most part, personal experience is powerless against the force of cultural continuity, and that is why these women jeopardise the health and well-being of those they love for the sake of a “security” as damaging as it is illusory.