Bangladesh must step up efforts to halt a child marriage "epidemic" in which nearly one-third of girls in the country wed before the age of 15, a rights group warned Tuesday.
A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted that despite a recorded drop in poverty levels over recent years, Bangladesh still has alarmingly high numbers of child marriages. Researchers suggested that regular natural disasters are partly to blame, as they force greater burdens on families already struggling to raise children. Almost two-thirds of the child brides interviewed as part of the report said their families had been affected by events such as cyclones.
HRW also called on Bangladesh's government to abandon a proposal to lower the legal age for marriage for girls from 18 to 16, a move it said would only fuel the crisis.
"It will send the message to the parents that child marriage is okay. The government should act before another generation of girls is lost," Heather Barr, author of the HRW report, told reporters in Dhaka.
Barr also called on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to "follow through" on commitments she made at a global summit last year in London to stop girls as young as 10 from marrying.
Bangladesh has the world's highest rate of marriage of girls under the age of 15, at 29 percent according to HRW figures, despite the practice being illegal.
Officials are often bribed to fake birth certificates to allow the marriages to take place, the report said.
Parents are often motivated by poverty or fear that an unwed daughter will be the victim of constant harassment. Sometimes parents marry off their young daughters in order to be able to save money for the education of their sons, HRW said.
The report, based on some 100 interviews mostly with married girls, said girls were being denied an education and their health placed in danger, with many forced to have children before their bodies were ready.
It notes that girls aged 10 to 14 are five times more likely to die during childbirth than women between the ages of 20 and 24.
One girl who spoke to HRW, named in the report as Rashida, reported that she was terrified of her husband after getting married at the age of 10 or 11.
"He forcibly entered me and I would cry so much that everything would get wet from my tears. It was so difficult, so painful," she said.
The report, titled "Marry Before Your House is Swept Away: Child Marriage in Bangladesh," said families often married off their daughters after losing homes or incomes to cyclones and other natural disasters that regularly hit the impoverished nation.
"Child marriage is an epidemic in Bangladesh, and only worsens with natural disasters," Barr said.
"Some 60 percent of the girls I've interviewed have been affected by natural disasters, which have some roles in their families' decision about marrying their daughter at a very young age."