Every year millions of adolescent girls marry young in South Asia. They are burdened with responsibilities as young wives and teenage mothers. In most cases, girls are coerced into marriage in varying circumstances. Research indicates that child brides face greater physical violence and a number of health risks. However, evidence is also building up on another more serious consequence of early marriage.
Globally it’s recognised that mothers play a central role in adolescent development by engaging in critical activities such as informal home tuition to school-going children. Yet a majority of rural mothers in developing countries are disadvantaged and cannot provide the right psychological and educational development support for their adolescent children. They themselves lack literacy and numeracy skills, and a major reason for this is early marriage.
During a field survey of BRAC’s adolescent development programme in remote north-eastern Bangladesh, we interviewed over 4,000 mothers of 11-16 year-old children. The study targeted some of the poorest areas of the country. BRAC has identified these ‘poverty pockets’ as places where young adolescents are highly vulnerable to violence, sexual harassment and early marriage. Most of the mothers surveyed spent a limited amount of time in formal schooling. The findings showed that on average, the mothers only had two years of formal schooling. Approximately 60 per cent didn’t even complete one year in school.
However these mothers also started their married lives as minors. Consistent with recent statistics, approximately 70 per cent of the mothers surveyed married young; the average reported age at first marriage was 16 years. Mothers marrying on or after the age of 15 had about a year of extra schooling than those married early. Similarly mothers marrying young significantly lagged behind. It was found that their numeracy, Bangla and English literacy scores were much lower compared to those who marry on or after 18.
These differences are very large considering the low level of literacy and numeracy skill among rural mothers. But the practice of early marriage is also hindering development of the next generation of mothers. Earlier, we discussed that a large proportion of adolescents in Bangladesh, particularly girls, are in school but not learning. Our current research links low learning among adolescent daughters to their mother’s age at first marriage. We find that being raised by a mother who marries early has a significantly negative influence on the learning outcome of daughters. Moreover mothers who marry very young (eg, before 15) are also likely to see their adolescent daughter drop out from school prematurely.
Girls who are raised by teenage mothers not only learn less in school, but they are also at greater risk of dropping out early. Failure to stop early marriage will have a long-term impact on society by reducing human capital of the next generation of mothers. This is a serious issue given that the level of student learning remains very low in rural Bangladesh, even among girls who do attend school. While low learning is likely to be primarily caused by poor quality of education service delivery in rural areas, early marriage makes it even harder to improve learning outcomes. Most mothers, under-schooled and victims to early marriage, fail to provide critical input at home to their daughters. Child marriage is not just a tragedy for young girls, it a disaster for human development in countries like Bangladesh.
Therefore, policymakers have yet another reason to prioritise programmes that end child marriage in a generation. Delaying marriage will not only improve women’s physical and mental wellbeing in poor households, but will also help mothers play an effective role in facilitating their children’s development at home. NGO-led initiatives such as BRAC’s ADP and social and financial empowerment of adolescents (SoFEA) can play an important role. These initiatives directly target girls at risk of early marriage and empower them through awareness and confidence-building measures. Available evidence suggests that this approach is effective in delaying early marriage. Therefore more research on the performance of these programmes is necessary for scaling up efforts to eliminate the practice of child marriage.
M Niaz Asadullah is professor of development economics and deputy director of the Centre for Poverty and Development Studies (CPDS) at the University of Malaya.
Md Abdul Alim is research fellow at BRAC Afghanistan.
Fathema Khatoon is senior research associate at BRAC Research and Evaluation Division.