Preventing female early marriage in Bangladesh

Women in a dark room in Bangladesh

Improving the Capacity of Non-Profit Organisations to Shape Programmes and Policies for the Prevention of Female Early Marriage in Bangladesh.

Since 2014, Dr Zaki Wahhaj , Reader in Economics, has been engaged in research on the consequences of female early marriage, in collaboration with international research partners. The research, conducted during a period of intense debate on child marriage policy in Bangladesh, helped shape the understanding, approach and programmes of non-profit organisations working in the country on issues related to early marriage.

Dr Wahhaj, together with Professor Niaz Asadullah at the University of Malaya, conducted a large, nationwide survey of women in Bangladesh with detailed history on their marriages, which revealed that traditional gender norms continue to play a key role in determining the marriage timing of women in Bangladesh, with strong social pressures to marry immediately following the onset of puberty. Using economic modelling methods, Dr Wahhaj showed that these marriage practices may be due, not to an inherent cultural preference, but because of informational problems on the marriage market that leads to higher dowry demands from older brides. In 2018, Dr Amrit Amirapu, Professor Asadullah and Dr Wahhaj followed up the 2014 survey with a field experiment in 80 villages in Bangladesh to understand the effects of a recent change in child marriage law on social attitudes towards the practice and marriage timing decisions.

The findings from these studies helped inform the Population Council – an organisation that designs and evaluates programmes on important health and development issues around the world – in its own approach to tackling female early marriage in South Asia. The work has also been crucial in improving understanding at BLAST – the largest dedicated non-governmental legal services organization in Bangladesh – on how the law affects social attitudes and practices related to female early marriage.

Since 2018, Wahhaj has collaborated with MOMODa Foundation, a non-profit organisation that operates a range of social development programmes in northern Bangladesh, and Dr Abu Parves Shonchoy from Florida International University, to design an intervention aimed at reducing female early marriage in the region. The intervention, informed by the research on early marriage in Bangladesh will involve verifying and creating official birth records of adolescent girls to provide them with better legal protection against early marriage.

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