Rahela went to live with her aunt and uncle but they were struggling to afford education for their own two children. "You know orphans don't get education," Rahela said. "My aunt and uncle asked me not to go to school— they said I should work in their house and look after their children."
About a year later, her aunt and uncle arranged a marriage for her. "I can't really blame them," Rahela said. "They don't have enough money to provide for their own children."
When Human Rights Watch interviewed Rahela last year, she was 17 and was struggling to care for her one year old son, saying she's never recovered her strength after her pregnancy. "I really wanted to continue my education so I could get a job and stand on my own feet." she said.
More girls under the age of 15 get married in Bangladesh than in any other country in the world – a total of 29%. By age 18, when they should be graduating from high school, 65% of Bangladeshi girls are married, even though according to Bangladeshi law girls cannot get married until they turn 18.
Lack of access to education, poverty, and social pressures all drive child marriage in Bangladesh. Poor families often can't afford the costs of education--which include exam fees, stationery and other expenses even in primary school where tuition fees are waived—and see girls as ready for marriage once they've left school.
Dowry traditions encourage child marriage by setting lower dowry for younger brides, while natural disasters push families further into poverty and sometimes directly prompt child marriage, as in Rahela's case.
Many girls face sexual harassment in their communities and even threats of kidnapping; parents, finding no help from police, see marriage as a way to protect girls.
Girls, in different parts of the country, used the exact same words to describe to Human Rights Watch how child marriage had affected them. "My life is destroyed," they said.
Tragically, research supports that view. Girls who marry early are unlikely to stay in school, and many children in Bangladesh leave education before secondary school. Girls face serious health risks – including death – as a result of early pregnancy, risks which also affect their children. They are more likely to suffer domestic violence and abuse. Some of the most heart breaking stories documented in a new Human Rights Watch report about child marriage in Bangladesh are those of girls who were abandoned by their husbands and begged to be taken back even after suffering horrific abuse, simply because they had nowhere else to go.
The government of Bangladesh can and should do more to end child marriage. It is the right thing to do, it's also legally required, under several international conventions Bangladesh signed up to including on children's rights and preventing discrimination against women.
In 2014, Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pledged to end child marriage before the age of 15 by 2021, and by that date to reduce by one-third marriages between the ages of 15 and 18. In the months that followed, however, Sheikh Hasina's government took a devastating step backwards, proposing to lower the age of marriage for girls from the current 18 to 16.
The Australian government has condemned early and forced marriage and recently taken important steps to eradicate the practice in Australia. Australia is also an important donor to Bangladesh. In 2013, Australia gave almost $121 million in aid to Bangladesh. This generosity made Australia the fifth largest bilateral donor to Bangladesh.
Even with recent aid cuts, Australia will still remain a major donor to Bangladesh. Australia has also been one of the donors in Bangladesh with the strongest focus on education and health—crucial services for assisting girls at risk of child marriage and married girls like Rahela.
Our government has an opportunity to help make Bangladesh's pledge to end child marriage a reality. DFAT should consider incorporating into its programming interventions specifically targeted at preventing child marriage and assisting married girls. Australia should also sustain its investment in education and health in Bangladesh and look for ways to prioritize girls at risk of child marriage and married girls within those programs.
Even more importantly, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop should take advantage of the strong relationship between Australia and Bangladesh to press on a political level for Bangladesh to do more to end child marriage.
As every day goes by, another generation of Bangladeshi girls are being lost to child marriage. Australia can help – and it would be shameful not to.
*Not her real name
Elaine Pearson is the Australia Director of Human Rights Watch based in Sydney.