Asia child marriage initiative examines child marriage in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan

Jessica Buchleitner with Alessandra Tranquilli- WNN Interviews

Aalia was saved from an early marriage thanks to her mother's in
Aalia’s mother, Riffat was married when she was 14 years old because her parents could not afford for her to remain at home. At 17 she gave birth to Aalia. When Aalia was 13 her parents considered marrying her, because they could not afford to keep her in school. Riffat opposed the marriage because she wanted her daughter to have different opportunities in life than she did. Aalia is now back at school. Photo credit: Plan International

(WNN) Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, ASIA –  Plan International is a nonprofit organization working in 51 developing countries across Africa, Asia and the Americas to promote child rights and provide better opportunities for millions of children through 21 national organizations.

In 2014 and 2015, as part of the Asia Child Marriage Initiative (ACMI), Plan International and Coram International undertook a research study in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia. The purpose of the ACMI research was to gather in-depth and detailed evidence on the root causes of child marriage practices. It focused on exploring social attitudes, values and norms concerning child marriage, and identifying the structural and environmental factors which influence them. In addition, the research informed the development of an index for measuring environmental factors associated with the acceptability of child marriage which will be used by Plan International to track progress and improve the effectiveness of its child marriage programming globally.

Released on Nov. 9, the comprehensive report “Getting the Evidence: Asia Child Marriage Initiative” found rates of child marriage of girls to be high across the surveyed countries of Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan.

Research conducted for the report found that the number of years a girl spends in education is associated with her age of first marriage; girls who stay in school longer tend to marry later. Furthermore, male sexual violence and control of female sexuality underlie the practice of child marriage, while improved access to sexual and reproductive health rights reduces child marriage acceptability. The summary report presents the research findings and makes a series of recommendations that are necessary to reduce levels of child marriage throughout Asia.

Alessandra Tranquilli, regional gender research program manager for Plan International Asia with WNN Interim Executive Editor Jessica Buchleitner answered our questions about this leading research and new insights on child marriage in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia:

Jessica Buchleitner (JB) for WNN – Women News Network: Why are the rates of child marriage high in your areas of research?

Alessandra Tranquilli (AT): The research sites were selected because they were part of Plan International’s programs intervention areas and because of the previously-identified high rates of child marriage. The purpose of the research was to analyze norms and attitudes surrounding child marriage, to gain an in-depth understanding of the structural factors that shape child marriage and develop programmatic recommendations.

The reasons why child marriage is high in these research sites are multiple. Here is a list of several:

  • Gender: It is not only people’s specific ideas about when a girl should marry that are significant, but also their ideas about marriage, gender and power more broadly.
  • Economic inequality: Practices and attitudes are heavily influenced by the arrangement of economic relations, including income inequality, the financial dependency of women and girls, and the institution of dowry.
  • Education and opportunity: Lack of education and other opportunities is a significant driver of child marriage.
  • (Male) sexual violence: Child marriage is associated with the widespread normalization and justification of male violence against women and girls. Marriage is perceived as a remedy for the stigma associated with female sexual experience outside of marriage, including in the context of sexual harassment, abuse and rape.
  • Access to sexual reproductive health services: Knowledge and information about Sexual Reproductive Health is associated with reduced acceptability of child marriage. Unintended pregnancy is also a significant driver of both child and forced marriage.
  • Legal frameworks: The knowledge of the existence of a minimum legal age of marriage does not appear to be associated with a reduction in child marriage, at least in the short term. Nevertheless, the law remains relevant in terms of a normative force; evidence suggests that people are inclined to consider legal norms when forming ideas about when marriage is considered desirable and appropriate.

JB: The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that the minimum age of marriage for young men and women should be 18 years of age. In your areas of research, what age are boys and girls getting married?

AT: In research areas in Bangladesh, 73 percent of married females were married before they turned 18.

  • 27 percent of girls were married between the ages of 12 and 14.
  • Only 2.8 percent of males were married before they were 18.

In Indonesia, 38 percent of married females in survey areas were married under 18 years of age.

  • 7.8 percent of married females were married between the ages of 12 and 14.
  • Only 3.7 percent of boys were married before they turned 18, and none younger than 15.

In Pakistan 34.8 percent of girls were married before they turned 18.

  • 15.2 percent of married females were married between the ages of 12 and 14.
  • The rate of child marriage for boys under 18 was substantially higher, at 13 percent.

JB: What are the main reasons for such early marriage?

AT: Early marriages are usually due to a combination of different factors such as rigid gender norms, the economic dependency of women upon men, a lack of access to education and/or other employment opportunity for girls, lack of access to contraception and health services, male sexual violence against girls, and inconsistent implementation of existing laws.

JB: What does a typical marriage entail in each of the surveyed countries? Are there any specific societal customs that are observed that could be harmful?

AT: There are very rigid gender roles assigned to men and women within marriage. Women are responsible for child bearing, child caring and household work whereas men are in charge of being the primary income earner and provider for the whole family. This places women in a position of economic dependency towards men and assigns them a lesser role in influencing decisions at the household level.

JB: The correlation between the prevention of child marriage and education is clear yet what are the common barriers to education in the three regions surveyed? 

AT: Some of the major barriers include poverty (meaning lack of money to send kids to school; lack of access to education whereas schools are too far away, mainly in rural areas; lack of access to quality education in schools that have a zero tolerance policy to school related gender based violence (which is to say that schools may exist in the vicinity but they are of poor quality, and the factors regarding gender based violence remain a barrier); and a general belief that women should marry early, that a younger bride is more desirable, and that families have an obligation to arrange marriages for their children at an early age.

JB: How can these barriers be overcome?

AT: We must ensure that existing government ‘safety net’ programs such as scholarships and other financial educational support, free non-formal education opportunities and income support are targeted at girls and the families of girls in need. We also need to engage men, boys and parent- teacher association groups to improve their capacity to advocate against child marriage. Creating adolescent girls empowerment groups through safe spaces in schools and the community and making greater investments in education, including not just in building schools, but teacher training, curriculum, and supplies are also critical ways to overcome the barriers.

JB: Why particularly in the research area of Bangladesh are marriages of girls under 18 years of age more prevalent than in your other research areas? What is the differentiation?

AT: Bangladesh has the highest rate of child marriage in Asia and the third highest globally. The objective of the research was to analyze norms and attitudes around child marriage and we knew that in Plan International’s operational areas (Gazipur and Dinajpur), the prevalence was high and the girls were particularly at risk.

JB: Why is child marriage often associated with the widespread violence against women and girls?

AT: Mainly due to social norms in all three countries, but particularly Bangladesh and Pakistan strictly prohibit sexual activity outside of marriage; meanwhile women and girls are held responsible if this norm is transgressed, irrespective of whether or not the girl took part in the sexual activity consensually.

An unmarried girl is regarded as posing a constant threat to the reputation of her family; either because she might engage in a relationship prior to marriage, or because she is seen as being at risk of becoming a victim of sexual harassment or violence, which will be equally devastating to her reputation, and will damage her future opportunities for marriage. This creates considerable incentives for parents to marry their daughter at the earliest opportunity to secure her reputation and avoid social stigma.

One of the findings from our research is across all three countries, women tended to marry younger than men. In addition, the research reveals that the younger the girl is, the wider the age differential between girls and boy/men. The fact that girls tend to marry younger than boys helps to reinforce roles in which they are subordinate to men who are older, have more money than them, and effectively control all parts of their lives. As such, they are very vulnerable to mistreatment and have no choice but to remain within the relationship even if it is an abusive one.

Coming from an extremely poor family in Bangladesh, pursuing an education has always been a challenge for Nilima. Her father, a folk singer, was the only wage earner in the family and Nilima’s education was a burden for him. Unable to bear the costs, Nilima’s father decided to marry her of at the age of 14. Protesting the decision, she shaved her head. Nilima is fully aware of the consequences of child marriage as she is a member of a children’s organization and a young women’s forum supported by Plan International. Photo credit: Plan International

JB: What, if anything are local governments doing to protect young children from early marriages?

AT: In all three countries the governments are working toward the eradication of child marriage by establishing laws that establish a minimum age of marriage.

JB: In all areas surveyed, what specific laws or regulations are in place and are they being properly enforced?

AT: In Bangladesh, the Child Marriage Restraint Act (1929) establishes the minimum age for marriage at 18 years for girls and 21 years for boys.

In Indonesia, the Law on Marriage (1974) sets the minimum age of marriage at 16 for girls and 19 for boys and parental consent is required for marriages taking place where one or both parties is under the age of 21 years.

In Pakistan, the Child Marriage Restraint Act (1929) sets the minimum statutory age of marriage at 16 for girls and 18 for boys.

In Pakistan, legal regulation of marriage has been devolved to the provincial level, and a number of bills which would raise the minimum age of marriage have been proposed. In the Punjab province, where this study took place, however, no new legal provisions have been passed.

In the countries of research there a pluralist legal systems where statutory law, religious law and customary law co-exist and sometimes prescribes different ages at which it is considered acceptable for an individual to marry. In all three countries, there are legal requirements to register a marriage with the government appointed civil registrar. This is intended to provide a mechanism for enforcing the statutory minimum age of marriage. Survey data suggests that the rate of officially registered marriages is highest in the Indonesia research sites, where 94.2 percent of married respondents reported having an official “government registered” marriage. By contrast, in Bangladesh research sites, less than a third (30.95 percent) of married respondents reported having a government registered marriage, and in Pakistan research sites, less than half (46.74 percent) of married respondents reported having a government registered marriage. Qualitative data indicates that registration requirements are not preventing the occurrence of underage marriages.

However, where one of the parties is under-age, marriage may still take place but without formal, civil registration. In addition, the data suggests that in many instances those responsible for marriage registration overlook or fail to investigate whether one or both of the parties is under the legal minimum age of marriage. In all three countries, respondents mentioned cases where marriage officiates registered under-age marriages with the use of false documents or did not require parties to prove their age. It should also be noted that in many countries, the lack, or previous lack, of adequate birth registration systems means that many people in rural areas do not know their actual age, and there are not state records to verify this.

JB: What primary recommendations does your organization have to eradicate early marriage as defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child? 

AT: The reports recommends an integrated approach which tackles child marriage at a variety of different levels. I will highlight our main six.

The first is addressing poverty and lack of opportunity (particularly for girls). We recommend conducting awareness-raising about the legal prohibition of dowry (Bangladesh) and advocate for the adoption of a law banning it (Pakistan). Also creating partnerships to determine relevant skills and develop further accredited non-formal education and training opportunities to support girls and women in setting up businesses, in accessing income earning and savings programs and in improving girl’s employability.

The second is improving (access to and retention of) education. We recommend ensuring that existing government ‘safety net’ programs are targeted at girls (and the families of girls) in need, and to work to set targets for enrollment rate of girls in primary and secondary schools. Engaging men, boys and PTA groups to improve their capacity to advocate against child marriage and also creating adolescent girls empowerment groups through safe spaces in schools and the community are two important recommendations.

The third is promoting community safety and ending impunity for violence against women and girls by working with stakeholders to carry out a risk audit of violence in schools and developing then assisting in the implementation of a strategy for preventing and responding to violence, including a corrective education curriculum, a zero tolerance policy of the use of violence and sexual behavior, sensitization on laws and consequences of committing acts of violence and parenting classes on how to teach sons what is acceptable social and sexual behavior.

We also recommend carrying out capacity building with law enforcement officials in handling cases of sexual violence, in order to ensure accountability for perpetrators, girls have access to justice and encourage reporting.

The forth is increasing access to sexual and reproductive health rights and services by supporting existing advocacy and programming efforts aimed at the introduction and development of comprehensive sex and relationships education in the school curriculum.

To achieve this we suggest developing gender-sensitive youth friendly health clinics and a system for disseminating information on sexual health on a confidential basis. Also, advocating for the reform of laws that impose barriers on access to SRH services and to ensure that children born outside of wedlock are legally able to access documentation, education and other services.

The fifth is strengthening law and institutional frameworks. We advocate to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 years for both boys and girls in all provinces of Pakistan in addition to carrying out capacity building of relevant stakeholders to increase knowledge of the statutory minimum age of marriage and work with them to ensure implementation of the law and to improve monitoring systems of marriage registrars.

The sixth recommendation is on sensitization / messaging on child marriage. Sensitization messages should promote the positive contribution that an educated and/or economically independent woman can make to a marriage, how it is important for boys and girls to be sufficiently mature, financially responsible and to have completed at least primary education before getting married.

JB: Is there a specific case or story that particularly stands out from your research? 

AT: One in particular was a girl named Nilima from Bangladesh who stopped herself from becoming a child bride. We have this story in our media bank and it is commonly cited. Because she came from an extremely poor family in Bangladesh, pursuing an education was always a challenge. Her father, a folk singer, was the only wage earner in the family and Nilma’s education was a burden for him. Unable to bear the costs, Nilima’s father decided to marry her off at the age of 14. In protest she shaved her head to prevent the marriage from taking place, knowing her altered appearance would stop it. She is fully aware of the consequences of child marriage as she is a member of a children’s organization and a young women’s forum supported by Plan International.

Although the marriage was called off, the pressure of marriage did not subside. Eventually, Nilima convinced her parents to not get her married if she paid her own expenses. She started working as a maid in private households and used the money to pay her school tuition fees. She achieved great grades on her exams and is now studying for a Bachelor in Arts degree from her local college. She received tailoring training and a sewing machine from Plan International and has started her own tailoring business. She makes dresses and bags and sells them to local shops. In the afternoon, she runs a small shop which sells betel leaves and cigarettes. Her long day ends with studying and preparing for exams. She hopes to become a teacher. Of course there are many more stories on our website.

For further reading and to download the full report, visit the Plan International website.


WNN Interim Executive Editor Jessica Buchleitner is on the Board of Directors for Women’s Intercultural Network, a United Nations ECOSOC consultative non-governmental organization. She has served as an NGO delegate to the annual sessions of the UN Commission on the Status of Women for the last four years representing various NGO initiatives around the world. She is also the author of the 50 Women Anthology Series–a two book series of personal stories told by 50 different women from 30 countries highlighting their unique experiences of navigating and overcoming obstacles including political, cultural and societal issues, armed conflict, gender based violence, immigration, health afflictions and business ventures.


Recognized by UNESCO for ‘Professional Journalistic Standards and Code of Ethics” WNN began in 2005 as a solo blogger’s project. Today it brings news stories on women from 5+ global regions to the attention of international ‘change-makers’ including the United Nations and over 600 NGO affiliates and United Nations agencies.


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