With UN World Food Programme rations allocated by household, families are marrying off girls as young as 12 to reduce the number of mouths to feed and create new households with food quotas of their own, the Guardian has learned.
More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar since the military launched its first round of “clearance operations” in October last year. About 600,000 have been displaced since the second wave in August, which the UN has condemned as “ethnic cleansing”. Security forces have been accused of mass rape and killing.
Medics in Bangladesh say young girls have been a particular target of sexual violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
But in the camps of Cox’s Bazar, they continue to face violence in the form of early marriage, which causes physical and psychological damage.
“I wasn’t mature when I got married,” said Anwara, who fled Rakhine after the military burned her home. Aged 14, she was married within weeks of arriving in Bangladesh and has just had her first baby.
“I couldn’t understand what had happened, and got weak and didn’t eat anything. I didn’t tell anyone and no one knew I’d conceived. Girls don’t become smart till four or five years after they get their menstruation. That’s when we become strong and understand things in life and have a chance to grow tall and beautiful.
“I wish I could have spent some time without a husband and baby. Then life would have been beautiful.”
The Guardian spoke to more than a dozen teenage girls who had either been made to marry in the camps or whose parents were actively looking for husbands for them.
While early marriage is practised in Rohingya communities in Myanmar, the girls said food rations were a major factor in the decision to get married in the camps. The allocation of 25kg of rice every two weeks is based on an average family size of five, but many families are larger.
“I have no father and I was a great burden on my mother so it’s better I got married. Of course if my mother had the ability to feed me I would be happy to stay single.”
Muhammad Hassen has just arranged the marriage of his 14-year-old daughter, Arafa. “We have 10 family members in total, seven daughters, and we get 25kg of rice [every two weeks]. This is not enough for a family of 10,” he said.
“Of course if I’d stayed in Rakhine I would wait to marry my daughter. I was a farmer with three acres of land. I [would have fed her] with what I have in my house or extended family and neighbours would help. Here we can’t do that.”
Arafa had not yet met her husband – who was “very much older than me, about 20” – but she had seen him in the distance and believed he was an “honourable man”.
“I hope it will be good being a wife,” she said. “In my house I do everything for my parents and my young sisters, so it is my habit.”
Only one of the girls interviewed knew their husband before their wedding day, and all the girls who had already married said they knew nothing about sex.
“My parents gave me to my husband because they couldn’t afford to feed me. When I got married, I just thought my husband would feed me, I didn’t understand what he would do [in terms of intimate relations],” said Fatima, who was 12 when she got married.
Mohamad, a camp mazi – community leader – said parents don’t want to marry off their daughters, but “they need to eat”.
WFP said for the latest round of food distribution it had increased its rations for families of more than eight people. A spokesperson initially said the link between child marriage and rations was unlikely. But after hearing the Guardian’s findings, the organisation said it would follow up on the concerns with other UN agencies involved in child protection.
Habibur Rahman, programme head at Bangladesh charity Brac, who works with refugee families, said girls being married off for food was “a deep concern”.
“A household with more than eight members gets two ration cards but the household with seven members is getting one card. As a result, there is a risk of child marriage as a girl child can be married off and that would mean more food per ration,” he said.
“Girls and women in the refugee camps are at especially high risk of child marriage and other forms of violence. Child marriage is already common among the Rohingya, but poverty and insecurity are pushing many displaced families to marry off their daughters even earlier. The government and NGOs must do more to address these risks and take girls into account when planning their response to this crisis.”
Lakshmi Sundaram, executive director of Girls Not Brides, said child marriage had “devastating” consequences including early pregnancy, physical and sexual violence, and an increased likelihood of poverty.
“We cannot ignore child marriage in crisis settings. Governments and NGOs need to pay special attention to the risk of child marriage when they are planning their responses to humanitarian emergencies. That means putting a special focus on safety and access to quality education for girls. It also means working with girls and women from the early stages of a crisis, so they can explain their situations first-hand,” she said.
Girls and their families said it was easier for them to get married in Bangladesh than in Myanmar. The legal age for girls to wed in Bangladesh is 18, but the country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world.
For some parents the lax enforcement of marriage laws in Bangladesh is an opportunity. Rosia, 15, said she was married after a woman came to her family’s shelter and suggested if they could not afford to feed Rosia they should marry her to her son. “If my parents agreed, I had to agree,” she said.
But the marriage was a scam. Two months after the wedding it emerged the man was not the woman’s son and started demanding money from the family. When they were unable to pay he disappeared.
“I have one small boy and six girls. In [Myanmar], under-18 marriage is not allowed and we needed military permission and that cost a great deal of money. This was a great opportunity – a chance not available in [Myanmar],” says her father, Muhammed.
Muhammed is determined to find husbands for all his daughters. “Early marriage is not good according to my knowledge – but it is good for me. Because I cannot feed them, one by one I will have to give them husbands.”
Meanwhile, a panel of UN women’s rights experts has responded to mounting evidence that national security forces have committed acts of sexual violence against Rohingya women by asking the Myanmar government to report cases within six months.
The request, known as an exceptional report, is only the fourth of its kind since the UN committee on the elimination of discrimination against women held its first session in 1982.
“We are very cautious and we apply very strict criteria when we decide to go that route, and usually we have different ways of following up on a dialogue,” said committee member Nahla Haidar. “We have had reports of sexual violence, rape, torture, mutilation that women were subjected to. We really felt compelled.”
Such requests occur only in response to “grave and systematic violations”, said Haidar, who added: “We never abuse this procedure.”
- Some names have been changed to protect identities. Fiona MacGregor travelled with Girls Not Brides. Additional reporting by Rebecca Ratcliffe
Marium, 14, arrived in Bangladesh in September. She was married three weeks later. “Everything was burning in the village. As we ran out the people at the front were all shot,” she said.