The rate of child-marriage in Islamic Bangladesh is accelerating, even though the primitive and damaging practice is technically illegal.
Photographer Allison Joyce witnessed one recent wedding between Mohammad Hasamur Rahman, 32, and Nasoin Akhter, 15.
“It’s tradition for the bride to look shy and coy during the wedding,” Joyce explained to The Washington Post. “But I noticed this sadness and unspoken fear and uncertainty even when she was in her room with her friends before the ceremony or at the parlor with her sister (who was also married around the same age). She was withdrawn and quiet.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) discovered the country ranks fourth in the world in child marriages. Statistics show that “29 percent of Bangladeshi girls married before the age of 15, and 65 percent before the age of 18.”
The group found these factors to be behind the surge in child marriages:
Gender discrimination feeds social attitudes and customs that harm girls at every stage of their lives and fuel the country’s extremely high rate of child marriage. Desperate poverty remains a daily reality for many families in Bangladesh, and many parents see child marriage as their best option to safeguard the future of a daughter they feel they can neither feed nor educate nor protect. Bangladesh’s status as one of the countries in the world most affected by natural disasters and climate change adds an additional element of hardship to many families, especially those living in the most marginal and disaster-affected parts of the country.
Joyce photographed the wedding of 14-year-old Mousammat Akhi Akhter and 27-year-old Mohammad Sujon Mia in 2014. She then performed the same job for Akhter’s 13-year-old sister.
“I photographed the wedding of Akhi’s 13-year-old sister last year, and when I asked her mother why she was marrying her daughter off, she described not feeling comfortable to let her walk to the corner store because she would be harassed by men and boys,” she said, adding:
She also said no boy wants to marry a girl older than 18. If a girl is still single past that age people will ask too many questions. She knew it was wrong to marry very early, but they weren’t from a wealthy family, and she told her daughter’s husband to wear condoms for a few years, so it will be okay. Marriage is seen as a cover of respect and protection for women. By not going to school, it reduces the risk of being sexually active outside the house or be harassed while commuting.
Some people accuse local government officials of assisting the marriages.
“Interviewees consistently described local government officials issuing forged birth certificates showing girls’ ages as over 18, in return for bribes of as little as US$1.30,” claimed the HRW report.
The secular HRW report, however, downplayed the role of Islam, which praises early marriage for girls and also minimizes their cultural and political opportunities. For example, Islam lauds Muhammad, its reputed prophet, as the perfect example of human behavior even though he married a six-year-old girl named Aisha, and had sex with her when she was nine years old.
That example shapes Bangladesh because almost 90 percent of the population is Muslim. “Sometimes imams [Muslim religious leaders] are encouraging child marriage, asking why girls who are 18 or 20 are not married yet,” an activist told the group.
Child marriages gained international attention in 2012 when statistics showed “20% of girls becoming wives before their 15th birthday.”
The BBC interviewed a Bangladeshi girl named Poppy, who was in a cockroach infested hospital. No one knew how old she was, but the hospital believed she was only 12. She was pregnant, but suffered “serious internal injuries which have left her incontinent. It’s caused by giving birth too young and not getting proper medical attention.” Another mother told the BBC that she forced her daughter into marriage “because I love her.”
While the BBC was present, Bangladeshi authorities intervened and threatened prosecution if the mother married off her daughter.