In the conflict affected areas and humanitarian situation, child marriage or marriage before 18 is typically said to be widespread. Often, child marriage among Rohingya has been reported to be pervasive. Clearly, it is outlawed by UN conventions as a violation of human rights and certainly it makes girls more vulnerable to sexual and gender based violence, unequal treatment, discrimination and abuse, and often it triggerssome of the major protection challenges in the camps.
The reasons behind child marriage among Rohingya are often said to be something mostly rooted in ‘socio-cultural and religious beliefs’. But in my working experience with them, things have often been spotted to be something more likely to berooted elsewhere.There are many coercive circumstantial factors in which early marriages in the humanitarian setting are more likely to occur. According to a report by UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), insecurity, increased risks of sexual and gender based violence, breakdown of rule of law and state authority, lack of access to education, the stigma of pregnancy outside marriage, increased poverty are some factors that contribute to the early or forced marriage in the humanitarian setting.
People often say things like Rohingya people traditionally get married earlier and have more children. We often get chances to talk to them and look deep into their lifestyle in the camps. Evidently, they tend to marry off earlier in the camps than they did back in Myanmar. It’s mostly because there were laws and state regulations restricting marriage before 18. In addition, many did not like to get married earlier in Myanmar due to having some personal development goals like building a home, getting educated, going to Malaysia or elsewhere. But here things have worsened around them. They cannot have such aspirations in the sprawling camps in Cox’s Bazar. “Our people did not marry in Myanmar as early as we are doing here. Here we live in such a packed and insecure environment that not to marry off the girls earlier poses many challenges; boys alsolikes to get married earlier here as they don’t find anything to do, says Nur Alam, a 34-year-old Rohingya man.
In most of the households, there are teenage girls who are mostly waiting for getting married off. Definitely, some of them have come out for making a change in their life and community. Given the limited in-house space and flimsy tents they live in, it is hardly possible to give separate space for the teenage children, and as a result, it becomes nearly impossible for parents to maintain privacy in the home.“We feel very embarrassed to our teenage children because we cannot maintain privacy in the house”, says Nur Mohammad, 40 year-old-Rohingya man and father of seven.
With the loss of their state authority, social protection systems and the absence of systematic marriage registration in the camps, marriages often create chaotic situations, particularly for girls, as they often end up in violence and separation. Besides, polygamy is pretty widely seen in the Rohingya community and it also makes girls more vulnerable to abuse and discrimination. There are many children living with their relatives in the camps whose parent(s) got separated,died in the violence in 2017, remained in Myanmar, left camp for Malaysia or elsewhere. Consequently, families havefallen apart and children get deprived of proper family care and protection, and thus become prone to early marriage.
Sometimes, with things like having no progressive self-development opportunities, lack of education, uncertainty of future, conservative religious beliefs, marrying off becomes the only way forward for many girls; for the caregivers, it is a matter of being free as parents often appear to be highly worried about the girls who have reached puberty.
Again, sometimes, some of the Rohingya parents and caregivers do want to educate their boys and give efforts like sending to private tutors but they hardly like to get their girls educated, rather they get haunted by the fear of possible sexual violence, abuse, and of course, the concern of losing dignity and prestige. Cases like 13/14-year-old girls getting picked upby a group of notorious Rohingya men and forcefully married off – are pretty usual in the camps. As a result, Rohingya girls, having no choice, become helpless victim to early marriages. On top of that, there is stereotype in the Rohingya community that girls become older when they reach 20.Undoubtedly, spread of education is the only effective way to reduce child marriage in a society. In a lower and upper middle class family in our society, early marriage is pretty unthinkable. It is certainly not because there is a law preventing it but education, progressive economic and career goals that they have envisioned. But Rohingya people have no such opportunities to pursue a progressive life; rather they live in an environment that coerces them to get married earlier.
Our modern-day life is full of colorful celebrations and events. But life in the Rohingya camps is depressing. To most of the teenage Rohingya boys and girls, getting married seems to be a means of celebrating life and of pleasure - a doing where nothing to be done and often not necessarily something being done as a religious obligation.“What to do, I don’t feel like going to learning centers as none of my ages goes there. I don’t feel good. After marriage, it feelssettled somehow” says Ali Juhar, a 18-year-old boy who got married months ago.
However, to build a sustainable and progressive society free of violence towards women, gender stereotypes and inequalities, there is no way forward without raising social awareness on child marriage and inclusion of girls in education. There are pretty good number of reports, researches and documentaries done on child marriage in the Rohingya refugee camps. Definitely, many combined efforts and measures from Camp-in-Charges (CiC) and NGOs are in place to prevent child marriages and the likes.With the added challenges caused by protracted COVID measures and the devastating fire incidents in the recent months, their future is turning bleaker. They are now in need of more attention from the world than ever before. They should not be forgotten.
Parvez Uddin Chowdhury is a protection worker