When I was a little girl growing up in Bangladesh, my mother would tell me that going to school was okay, but if I didn’t do well, she would marry me off to a rich older man who could take care of me. It is many years later, but those words still affect me.
She wasn’t the only family member trying to marry me off young.
My grandfather had plans for me to marry my first cousin who was 20 years older than me, but he passed away before he could make it happen.
All of this marriage talk is part of a deep-rooted tradition to keep women under control and maintain family honour.
But I couldn’t accept this fate.
When I was young, my family moved to Los Angeles.
Suddenly I was exposed to a different world, that didn’t match my family’s values at home and I began to rebel, upsetting my traditional Bangladeshi Muslim parents.
I couldn’t adapt to my family’s mindset. There were too many rules. I had to excel in school, avoid boys, learn the Quran and dress conservatively. My mother even threw away the tank tops and shorts I had bought in secret.
I remember the day my uncle said my pants were too tight and that I shamed my family by dating a Hindu boy, l brushed him off, and laughed in his face. But he had much more control over my life than I thought.
When I was 16, my aunt heard of a rich man in his 40s who wanted to marry a young girl. My uncle wanted this marriage to happen.
I was flown to Canada to visit my relatives, thinking I was going on an unexpected vacation. When I reached my aunt’s house, she had cooked an elaborate Bengali meal, and I saw a pudgy, old, balding Bangladeshi man sitting across the room. After dinner, my aunt suddenly left me alone with him. The moment we spoke, I knew exactly what was going on. He boasted about the property he owned, family prosperity and how his family had millions of dollars. He then proceeded to ask what I was looking for in a man. I froze.
I’ve blocked out most of the memories of that day, apart from feeling overwhelmed, sitting in a room full of people trying to decide my life for me. All I remember is keeping the conversation short and leaving my aunt’s as quickly as possible. I then ran away from home.
I am one of very few women who was able to get away. Despite it being illegal, Bangladesh has the highest rate of child marriage for girls under the age of 15 in the world. According to UNICEF, 65 percent of girls are married by their 18th birthday and 29 percent by the age of 15.
‘They reminded me of cattle at the market waiting to be sold’
This past month, I travelled across northern Bangladesh, which has some of the highest rates of child marriage in the country. I wanted to know why it continues to happen, generation after generation.
I met eight girls along the way. Since the weddings often happen in secret, they take place very quickly. Each girl I encountered looked terrified. They shook in fear, cried, and looked confused. They reminded me of cattle at the market waiting to be sold. Seeing them so helpless was hard to bear.
Khadija Begum is one of those girls. I met her on her wedding day. She was 12. Her family is poor and her father had saved up enough dowry money to marry her to a 30-year-old rickshaw puller.
On the morning of Khadija’s wedding, her parents sent her to hide at her grandparents’ house, so authorities could not find out about her marriage. I went to see her.
“The marriage is happening against my will. I don’t know why they are doing this,” Khadija told me while staring at the ground.
I played a clapping game with her to distract her. She smiled. At that moment, I could see that she was just a child and her childhood and education were being taken away from her. She was helpless just like I was the day my aunt and uncle tried to marry me off, except she couldn’t escape.
The men I spoke to during filming Too Young To Wed saw nothing wrong with marrying young girls.
Take Shyamal for instance. He is a 25-year-old tea-stall owner who wanted the youngest bride possible. He found a girl named Beezly whom he was willing to marry for less dowry money as she was 13. I saw him showing photos of his bride-to-be hours before his wedding, asking his friends if she looked young enough.
“I like her behaviour so I picked Beezly. She’s pure. Most girls mix with other boys and have relations. I don’t like that … A good girl goes to school and straight home … and that’s it,” Shyamal said.
This cultural mindset goes beyond poverty and a lack of education. To me it is all about controlling women. I am so grateful that I managed to escape that control. I am free and my future is my own, unlike thousands of young girls like Khadija and Beezly who are married off every year against their will.