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By: Maeghan McGaraughty 

Munni married at 12 years old. The village doctor proposed to her one day as she was on her way to school in their village in Barisal district, Bangladesh. One year later, she delivered twin girls.

Now 19 years of age, Munni is fully aware of the repercussions of her marriage. “This was an accidental decision I made at a young age,” she explains in a video that tells her story.

“If I hadn’t been married young, I would enjoy my life a little more. Like studying, working, or doing side jobs. But since I am married now and eating someone’s income, I can’t do anything but obey him.” 

Watch Munni's story

Remote video URL

Munni and her husband don’t want their daughters to make the same mistake they did. Nor does Munni want the same for her younger sister, Ity, who dreams of becoming an engineer.

Strong cultural norms conspire to make marriage under 18 prevalent in Bangladesh. Although Munni’s parents were against her marriage, Ity says, “If parents get a good proposal for their daughters, they will force marriage.”

Many mothers and fathers agonize over decisions concerning their daughters’ marriage. Keeping a girl in school will lead to a higher dowry price as she ages — a price impoverished parents may not be able to afford.

Close to 60% of the country’s girls are married before the age of 18. The Government of Bangladesh has identified the prevention of childhood marriage as a key priority for its public health and development agenda. Child marriage not only affects women’s health and education, but their economic empowerment too.

Girls who marry young “can’t continue their education, they don’t get a skilled job, and they don’t get respect in their family and in their community,” explains Shahana Nazneen, a researcher with Innovations for Poverty Action. Nazneen leads a research project that seeks to inform policies and interventions to prevent child marriage. The project is funded by the Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) program, a partnership between IDRC, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Department for International Development of the United Kingdom (DFID).

Listen to Nazneen talk about the tradition of child marriage and the research project

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The GrOW-supported research is a follow-up study that builds on a randomized controlled trial from 2007-2015 on two types of interventions to prevent child marriage: an empowerment program and an incentive to delay marriage.

The incentive program provided households with cooking oil for every year that girls aged 15 to 17 remained unmarried, until they reached 18 years of age. This incentive was intended to offset the potential rise in dowry price. The empowerment program combined an after-school educational component that focused on basic literacy, numeracy, and oral communication skills. This was complemented by  a social competency component that included life skills and nutritional and reproductive health knowledge.

The follow-up study among 19,059 girls from 460 communities found that the cooking oil subsidy was the most effective intervention to delay marriage and childbirth. Girls who were eligible to receive the subsidy were 20% less likely to have married before the age of 18 than girls in the control group who did not participate in any program. This reduction in child marriage resulted in 11% fewer teenage births in the group of girls receiving the subsidy.

Although the program stopped when they were 18, this group of women were also 12% more likely to be in school at age of 23. Rachel Glennerster, who co-led the GrOW-supported research as executive director of Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, explains that it is socially unacceptable to be married, with or without children, while in high school, but acceptable for married women to attend college. “If you can get [a girl] over the threshold of finishing high school without being married then she can keep going,” she says.

Three young girls standing next to each other outside of a building.

For Glennerster, who is now chief economist at DFID, these results demonstrate that the positive effects of delaying marriage until after  18 persist beyond that age, allowing young women to invest in their careers.

Nazneen emphasizes that the cooking oil subsidy is an incentive that can benefit unmarried girls who are out of school. This group is often left out of policies to prevent child marriage because of their focus on keeping girls in school. Indeed, child marriage and teenaged births among out-of-school girls receiving the subsidy also decreased, although less so than for girls attending school.

The empowerment program did not delay marriage, but the young women who participated  as girls were more likely to be involved in income-earning activities than their counterparts in other groups. 

The research team has been sharing results with the Government of Bangladesh and many international organizations working on issues affecting the lives of girls and women in Asia. Nazneen, for example, is involved in developing the national action plan for adolescent health in Bangladesh, which will bring multiple ministries together to work on issues related to the empowerment of girls.

Sitting near Munni’s village, Nazneen says, “We want all the girls … to get respect and attention from their family, to make decisions, not only for their family but also for their community … and be respected citizens in their society.”

Brief: Reducing child marriage and increasing girls’ schooling in Bangladesh

Learn more about Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW)

Top image: Anna MacDonald