Things that make you to Think
Jhinuk Akter, not her real name, shares a fate similar to thousands of other underage girls in the country who are forced into marriage before the age of 18.
In 2011, a 15-year-old Jhinuk from Manikganj was married off to a man twice her age. Before she turned the legal age for marriage, she had already given birth.
The child, however, was born with physical impairments, an outcome very common in underage pregnancies.
“Although I was 15, my marriage was registered by showing my age as 18. I knew this was wrong, but I had no choice as this was my family’s decision. Later, since I had no idea about the risks of underage pregnancy, I also had no choice but to become a mother,” Jhinuk told the Dhaka Tribune at the Disabled Rehabilitation and Research Association (DRRA) in Manikganj’s Ghior.
A young boy smiles as he nestles on his young mother’s shoulder in a room full of other under-age mothers and their children with disabilities in a rehabilitation centre in Manikganj. The photo was taken recently. Photo: Abid Azad
“After the birth of my physically challenged child, I went to Shishu Hospital and the initial treatment cost Tk40,000. Later, I had to pay over Tk50,000 because my child had some head problems.
“When I brought the child to Dhaka Medical College Hospital, the doctors were negligent because they wanted my child to be admitted to their preferred private clinic. I went to a homeopathic doctor, but that did not work out either,” the young mother added.
Jhinuk’s desperation is not uncommon. The Dhaka Tribune spoke to several underage mothers who have children with physical impairments but have no clue about proper treatment.
“When girls under 20 years of age become pregnant, the possibilities are higher that the child will have problems including disabilities, respiratory and heart diseases,” said Dr Saleha Begum Chowdhury, a professor at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University’s (BSMMU) obstetrics and gynaecology department.
“This happens because at this age, the pelvis is not fully formed for childbirth. These girls do not achieve physical maturity and sufficient development. So the delivery can be hampered. As a result, sometimes their children die or are born with disabilities,” Dr Saleha said.
Project Manager Nizam Uddin at the DRRA, which provides support to disabled people, told the Dhaka Tribune: “We have around 200 patients who receive different kinds of support and health treatment.
“Most are children of under-aged mothers.”
High rate of underage pregnancy
According to a recent study by Initiatives of Married Adolescent Girls’ Empowerment (IMAGE), an NGO working for the welfare of underage mothers, at least 79% of girls who were forced into underage marriages were currently pregnant or had already given birth at least once.
The study, which was carried out in several districts, found that 12.3% of underage married girls were pregnant, 57.1% were already the mother of one child, and 9.6% were expecting their second child.
Although 98.7% of the girls covered by the study voiced their opposition to underage marriages, they had no say in their own marriages because of pressure from family and society.
Despite being applauded worldwide for progress in empowering women, Bangladesh still suffers from the problem of underage marriages.
Lack of awareness
Many of the underage girls who spoke to Dhaka Tribune said they had little knowledge about early pregnancy.
Firoza Khatun, not her real name, became a mother at the age of 17. During her pregnancy, she only had two ultrasound scans done.
“I did not know anything about pregnancy and post-pregnancy healthcare. If my family did not take me to a hospital, how was I supposed to go alone? I had to do my household chores throughout my pregnancy,” Firoza said.
She first noticed something was wrong when her daughter could not sit up at eight months of age. Now two-years-old, the child is still unable to sit up unassisted.
Papri, also not her real name, said she had been forced to try for six hours to give birth at home, before her in-laws finally agreed to take her to Manikganj Sadar Hospital where doctors performed a caesarean delivery. The child turned out to be physically challenged.
“I feel so sad when I see other children running and playing but my child cannot sit properly unassisted,” Papri said.
How society reacts to a physically impaired child is also damaging to both mother and infant.
“Because I gave birth to a physically challenged daughter, my in-laws do not take good care of her. Although my husband supports me, I still need to live with my own parents to ensure care for my child,” she added.
“Some people blame me, saying it is my fault for giving birth to a physically challenged child. They think it was because problems with my attitude, behaviour and maintaining social and religious rituals. Some say I had sinned, while others say I have evil spirits,” Papri said.
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