The tradition of early marriages is still very much alive in Bangladesh, leaving adolescent girls under the often abusive, even violent, control of their husbands’ families. The Emmaus Thanapara Swallows group is developing educational and mediation initiatives to combat this social reality.
While the law in Bangladesh sets the minimum age of marriage for a woman at eighteen, the country still has the highest rate of child marriage in Asia. In 2019, 51% of brides were under eighteen years of age, and 16% were even younger than fifteen years old. The Emmaus Thanapara Swallows groups has noted that this practice is sometimes also accompanied by cases of bigamy. Once they are married, the teenagers join their husband’s family home. Abuse is not uncommon: not only do these young girls have to cope with being uprooted, but they are under constant and sometimes violent pressure, particularly by other women in the household, to take on the majority of household chores. This harassment can even lead to the bride being rejected and sent back to her family, where she will normally be ostracised.
To combat this oppression, Thanapara Swallows has adopted an education and mediation strategy. Teams travel to the villages to provide information on legal provisions regarding marriage and they intervene as third parties in the families affected by spousal conflict to restore harmony and the rights of wives. Their actions can extend to organising a court referral if dialogue is unsuccessful, but this is only necessary in 5% of cases. With its partner, the Bangladesh National Women’s Lawyer Association (B.N.W.L.A.) and some twenty organisations, Thanapara Swallows has also contributed to national advocacy work. This pressure led to the adoption of a law in 2010 that fills an important gap in the protection of female victims of domestic violence: a wife can finally file a complaint with the police and obtain the right to stay in her home, whereas previously it was common practice for the husband to evict her in the event of separation.
However, patriarchal attitudes are slowly changing and since 2016 Thanapara Swallows has embarked on a programme to educate twelve- to sixteen-year-olds on gender equality, promoting values of respect and mutual support between boys and girls. Furthermore, the organisations emphasise the key role of schooling for the latter. As Thanapara Swallows makes clear: the more access girls have to education, the better they are at enforcing their rights.