Bangladesh’s ‘Wedding buster’ takes on illegal child marriage
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As the UN marks the International Day of the Girl Child on Tuesday, activist Radha Rani Sarker is meeting with European leaders to highlight the plight of girls in her native Bangladesh, where 73% are illegally married off while still in childhood.
Radha, 21, met French Women’s Rights Minister Laurence Rossignol and reporters in Paris on Monday as part of a tour that will also take her to Brussels. With her baby face and sparkling black eyes, she did not appear to be intimidated in the presence of the minister and her entourage, telling the story of her life with disarming calmness.
She added sugar to her coffee as she recalled how she fled a marriage arranged by a group of uncles, and backtracked to her father’s untimely death as she worked through a plate of grapes and dates. She was in no hurry, giving everyone in the room the impression that the meeting was being conducted on her terms and on her timeline.
Radha’s childhood is far from being unique. A girl under 15 is married every seven seconds, according to a report by Save the Children released Tuesday. Girls as young as 10 are married off – often to much older men – in many countries, including Afghanistan, Yemen, India and Somalia.
In Radha’s own Bangladesh, up to 73 percent of girls are married off by their families before the age of 18, with 27 percent married between the ages of 12 and 14. The practice has been illegal since 1929, but nearly a century later it remains pervasive.
Radha is among the lucky few who have escaped a forced marriage and was able to continue her studies. She is now an advocate for girls in the region, fighting to give them the same opportunities she has discovered.
‘Girls don’t bring in any money’
Radha was born in 1995 to a poor family in the village of Khansama, in the northern region of Dinajpur. Her mother was married off at 12. Her father, a bamboo weaver, also had little say in the marriage, which was agreed by the families.
“I decided I wouldn’t have the same life as my mother,” Radha said.
The couple had five daughters – a terrible fate in a country where girls are considered to be a financial burden. Her father worked tirelessly to raise the dowries needed for his daughters, hastening to marry one off after another.
He died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2009, when Radha was 14. The youngest of the five daughters, she was the only one that remained unmarried and was the last to live in the family home. All her sisters had left to live with their in-laws; all had abandoned going to school. “I think my father would have liked for us to study, but he was poor,” Radha explained matter-of-factly. “Girls don’t bring in any money. And the older they get, the higher the dowry.”
Her father’s funeral had barely started when Radha’s uncles began figuring out how to marry her off. Their biggest concern was saving the family the embarrassment of having a pubescent unmarried girl to look after. “They started organising my wedding even before they had finished organising my father’s funeral,” she fumed, becoming emotional for the first time. “I lost everything: My father, my rights, my future.”
The uncles eventually found her a husband, a man 10 years her senior. Her mother, newly widowed and with no income to sustain the household, had no choice but to agree to the marriage, despite Radha’s fervent protests.
The wedding buster
Radha was forcibly taken to a sister’s house. “I wished I had died instead of my father. They locked me in a room. I spent my days crying on the floor. One day, when my brother-in-law came to pick up my plate of food, I sneaked past him and ran away. I jumped on a bus and went back to my mother,” she remembered.
Her sister beat her, but Radha would not yield. The teenager’s stubbornness eventually paid off, winning the sympathy of an educated cousin and her mother. “They finally left me alone,” she said.
Radha returned to school, which was paid for by loans from her teachers and an aid group. Today she studies social sciences at Dinajpur’s regional university and continues to fight against underage marriage.
She counts herself among a small group of “wedding busters”, volunteers who campaign against child marriage. Radha has already saved 20 girls from forced marriages.
Her dream is to build a centre for girls trying to escape underage marriages, a place where they can find refuge until they are legally adults. “The situation has improved a little in recent years, but underage marriage still enjoys impunity,” Radha said.
Asked if she plans on ever getting married, Radha said she is not opposed to the idea but felt no pressure to do so. She has already turned down seven proposals. “Marriage? Why not? But it’s not a goal in itself. Maybe if I meet a man who understands who I am and doesn’t impose any limits,” she said with a chuckle.
Still chewing on a date, Radha started to leave and the meeting appeared to be suddenly over. But she returned to treat the room to an impromptu song, the languid notes hinting at it being a Bangladeshi love song. But the translator said this impression was a false one: The song is an indictment of those who sacrifice their daughters’ futures on the altar of tradition.
This article was translated from its original in French.