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Understanding the role of community in preventing early marriage and early child-bearing: an exploratory study

Shahana Begum talks on a mobile phone with a Health Care Center to refer a pregnant mother to the clinic in Mymensingh, Bangladesh.  © 2010 Sumon Yusuf, Courtesy of Photoshare

Research Overview

The TRAction project is supporting research conducted at the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b) exploring the underlying cultural barriers that lead to early marriage and high rates of teenage fertility in Bangladesh.

Research has shown that young married girls have limited access to, and use of contraception, or to other reproductive health information and services.  Married girls generally have less decision-making power than older women, often with little authority or agency for decision-making. Early marriage also increases the risk of exposure to violence while perpetuating a cycle of under-education and poverty.  While school enrolment among young Bangladeshi girls has increased, high teenage fertility continues to be a national concern.  Despite efforts by the Government of Bangladesh to improve upon the status of young girls, significant regional variations exist, and early marriage remains a maternal health priority.  For example, even though the minimum legal age for marriage is 18, recent demographic and health surveys indicate the national median age at marriage to be 16.4 years. Regional heterogeneity also exists, with a substantially lower median age in the western regions, compared to the east.

Recognizing the significance of context when designing interventions aimed at delaying early childhood marriage, there is a need to explore the underlying role of the community in perpetuating marriage in young girls.  This study aims to explore that question, to understand potential roles that the community can play in preventing early marriage and early childbearing. The findings will assist policy makers in designing programs to improve upon the status of girls and young women throughout Bangladesh.

Study Location

Bangladesh Rajshahi, Rangpur and Khulna, Chittagong, or Sylhet divisions

Research Objectives

Primary Objective: to understand the potential roles that the community can play in preventing early marriage and early child-bearing.

Secondary objectives:

  1. To understand the major reasons leading to early marriage differences between regions
  2. To understand the role families can play in preventing early marriage
  3. To understand the community perceptions about age of marriage
  4. To understand community knowledge and willingness to comply with the existing marriage laws

Study Approach

This study employed a cross-sectional exploratory design in four purposively selected areas in Rajshahi, Rangpur and Khulna, Chittagong, or Sylhet divisions. The study used primary and secondary data methods including key informant interviews, focus group discussions with community members, in-depth interviews with adolescents and newly-weds, case studies with survivors of early marriage and a document review of relevant government registers.  During the data analysis, the quantitative data provided information concerning the frequency of early marriage, and a qualitative component provided contextual information to explain the “why” and “how” of early childhood marriage.

Key Results

Generally, among the study populations, the concept of “early marriage” is not considered to be a “problem” and they do not see any “visible” benefit in delaying marriage compared to the reasons that triggers the marriage decision. Parents make the decisions and girls have a little say about when and who to marry.  The common reasons for early marriage includes: i) fear of breaking social norms; ii) social pressure; iii) social insecurity – possibility of sexual harassment; iv) poverty, and v) dowry. The confusion of who to initiate the process of reporting and whom to report about marriage before legal age– was also identified by the community.

Local communities perceive key actors – UP chairman, Imam and marriage registrar – who have more influence in preventing early marriage than individual or family interventions. General awareness about the existing law of marriage is there at the community and they feel that this law is old and needs revisions – especially in terms of punishment for breaking the law is minimal.

Lessons Learned

The study found that communities fail to see the benefit of delaying marriage and child-bearing for Bangladeshi girls.  The study cited social insecurity like sexual harassment, poverty, dowry, fear of breaking social norms, and pressure from the community as reasons for early marriage.  The study also found regional variance in stigma around marrying outsiders, as well as the fear of overall social stigma, as explanatory factors for early marriage. Large family size and poverty were contributors to high rates of early marriage as well. With regard to the role of the community, the study found that community members felt divorced from the decision-making process, playing a small if insignificant role in preventing early marriage.

The study has the following recommendations:

  • Raising awareness about the benefits of delaying marriage until the legal age of marriage
  • Enhancement of social security for girls through community mobilization
  • Continued education for girls
  • Employment generation for girls, in poverty stricken regions, particularly through vocational and technical skill building
  • Enforcement of the existing marriage law; and a revision of the law as it was drafted in 1973

Research into Action

The study’s results will be helpful for improving the design of early marriage programming and for understanding approaches to community engagement with respect to behavior change interventions.   This study will also provide qualitative feedback for improving efforts to increase the reproductive health of young girls and teenage mothers.  As a national priority, the findings of is study should inform inclusive policy changes that can ultimately improve the effectiveness of initiatives aimed at empowering young girls of reproductive age.

Implemented by

International Centre for Diarrheal Disease Research (icddr,b)

Principle Investigator: Dr. Quamrun Nahar

Project Status


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