"This is a place affected by river erosion," Azima's parents told her, explaining why she had to marry at age 13.

Azima (not her real name) lived with her parents on the banks of the Meghna River in Bangladesh.

"If the river takes our house it will be hard for you to get married so it's better if you get married now," they said.

Families losing their land and homes to erosion in Bangladesh face being displaced and having to start over again in a new community where they are not known and are no longer land owners - meaning the marriage options for their daughters will be diminished.

In anticipation of this, some families rush to get their daughters married before the erosion arrives - even if the girls are very young.

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"I protested a lot to my parents," Azima said. "I wanted to continue my education. [But] I am the oldest and only after I get married can [my sisters] think about getting married. If the river takes the house it will be hard for them to get married."

Fourth highest rate

Azima's sisters are ages 12, 10, and 8 years old; her parents are now considering a marriage for the 12-year-old.

Azima married a 17-year-old boy three days after his parents decided she was an acceptable bride.

"They've already asked me to have children," Azima, now age 14, said of her in-laws. "I live in their house - I have to keep them happy."

Every year 15 million girls are married as children worldwide. Azima represents the one in nine girls in the developing world who is married before her 15th birthday - some are as young as eight or nine.

Child marriage occurs across the world, in every continent, in many different cultures, and in communities of all religions. Bangladesh has the fourth-highest rate of child marriage in the world - 65 percent of all girls are married by age 18.

Bangladesh has the fourth-highest rate of child marriage in the world - 65 percent of all girls are married by age 18.

 

If the numbers do not speak for themselves, the voices of the girls interviewed in the recent Human Rights Watch report on child marriage in Bangladesh most certainly do.

This report shows that too many girls in Bangladesh are driven into child marriage by a perfect storm of poverty, gender discrimination, natural disasters (which exacerbate poverty), difficulty accessing education and social pressure, and the consequences are devastating.

Girls who marry early are unlikely to stay in school and earn a decent living later in life, they face serious health issues due to early pregnancy and are more likely to suffer from domestic violence.

Social norm

Changing a social norm like child marriage might seem daunting. But the experience in Bangladesh and elsewhere shows that it can be done, if everyone plays their part - the government at all levels, civil society organisations, community and religious leaders, families and the girls themselves - and if they are properly supported by development partners and UN agencies.

Together, we need to empower girls to take control of their own decisions, help communities understand why child marriage is harmful (and illegal), provide education, health and other services to girls at risk of child marriage, married girls and their families, and develop and implement appropriate laws and policies.

In 2014, the government of Bangladesh announced its commitment to ending child marriage: at the London Girl Summit, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pledged to end child marriage under the age of 15 by 2021 and to end all child marriage under age 18 by 2041.

If Bangladesh lives up to this commitment, it will be able to show the world how ending child marriage can lead to a more just, healthy and prosperous life for all citizens.

The immediate impact will be seen in the lives of girls like Azima and her sisters, who will be able to stay in school and out of marriage. The benefits will be broader; investing in girls leads to larger positive impacts on families, communities and society as a whole.

It would be smart policy if the government of Bangladesh lives up to its ambitious commitments, and partners with civil society organisations who work closely with the communities where child marriage is common.

It is also essential for donors and other international partners to ramp up their support to efforts to end child marriage in Bangladesh and elsewhere. Only then will we be able to achieve a world free of child marriage, where every Azima can live up to her full potential. 

Mabel van Oranje is the initiator and chair of 'Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage'.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera