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Shirin

The story of a ten year old divorcee

The story of a child of Bangladesh


I am now 10½ years old and already I have been divorced for about six months. This may seem hard to
believe as I have not yet even started puberty and my body has developed nothing other than a very slight
swelling of my breasts.
I live on a small island called Begumganj in the middle of the rushing waters of the Brahmaputra river living
in a house where I serve as a maid to a my own family of my father, mother and family of 7 other children.
Begumganj (in English, Women's village) is one of the ever eroding small sandy islands that are formed by
the silt rushing down in the muddy waters of the Brahmaputra River in the north-west of Bangladesh. In the
monsoon season, the waters rage down from the north either adding to or eroding these small islands and
a severe flood every year is expected. Whole islands can be washed away overnight and many lives can
be lost. My family have been living on these islands for many generations and in my lifetime, we have
moved 3 times to different islands, because the flooding has caused our houses to be washed away with
the small piece land that they were built on.
We are a family of 8 children which range in ages from 4 to 16 years old. My five brothers are not yet
married but my elder sister Kaleda is, she is 14. In one way, she has been lucky; she didn't get married until
she was eleven years old because she had been unwell. But now she already has a son and again is
pregnant.
Out of every 100 child marriages, 40 will endure and 60 will end in divorce or desertion before the girls are
14 years old. From these 60, about 15 girls will remarry to become a second or third wife to an older man,
whose first wife no longer interests him. I might remarry later on, if I am lucky, but many girls like me who
are divorced end up being servants in their own or homes of relatives. We don't get paid, just food and a
few pieces of clothes to keep us within the strict sense of modesty. We are often sexually abused by the
men and boys of the family, as we are thought of more as slaves than as people.
Why, at 10½ years old am I already divorced? In truth, I don't know. When I was about nine years old my
father told me that I was to be married two days later and that I would go to live with a boy of 15 years old
at his family home on another island called Jumkaso. At first, like most girls, I was excited about being
married as it is expected in our society that all girls should be married and bear children, and the girls of my
village were always talking about the handsome boys that live in the area. One of my friends was married
at 8 years old to a boy of 15, but she too was sent home a divorced girl when she was 10 years old.
She had been very unhappy being married and had tried several times to commit suicide, mainly because
of the sexual needs of the boy and the abuse by his father. Beatings were common and eventually she was
thrown out.
At nine years old, what did I know about the needs of men at night, I could cook and clean, but anything
else was a mystery to me and my friends. My mother told me nothing other than just before the marriage
ceremony that at night the boy would do things to me and that I must not complain or make any trouble.
The boy must be allowed to do anything that he liked. I was to be his property, just like a cow or a goat
although I think that they treat them better. Once married, I would not be allowed out of the house
compound and that I must not be seen by anybody other than the family members and that I would always
have to be completely covered from head to toe. If anyone came to the house, I was not to speak and that I
was to stay in another room with my face and hair covered. My Husband was at school in class five and he
knew only what boys at that age know about sex and other things. I suppose like all boys, he had seen
cows and goats do it and had got some idea from that.
On the first night and for many nights after, I was very afraid and my husband would beat me because he
could not gain entry into me and he became very angry, shouting at me and beating me with his fists. After
a week, I ran away from his house and tried to beg a ride on a ferry boat back to my father's house. The
boatman grabbed me and shouted for some other men to take me back to my husband, where I was
beaten by him and his father with bamboo sticks and fists. The nights that followed were the worst nights of
my life as my fear seemed to give my husband more power than he had before. I didn't know what rape
was, but my husband hurt me so much that I was bleeding for many days after. In the normal way, I had not
started to bleed as other girls do, when they are a bit older every four weeks or so, but this bleeding must
have come from cuts or tears inside me.
Everybody beat me, if the food was not ready or did not taste very nice, it was my fault, if a cow or goat got
sick, it was my fault, if one of the babies that I had to look after made a mess or too much noise, it was my
fault. I had become a slave to my husband's mother for fetching and carrying or washing the endless
clothes that the family wore.
My husband went to school every morning at seven o'clock and he had to have something to eat before he
went. His clothes had to be clean and dry and his school books had to be ready. He would return from
school at noon and would go fishing or work in the fields with his father, uncles, cousins and brothers. He
would change his clothes after school as at school he had to wear trousers and shirt, whilst at home he
wore a lungi and tee shirt. His school clothes (he only had one shirt and trousers) had to be washed and
ready for school the next morning.
As I was the new wife and considered to be the lowest in rank of any of my new family's circle of many
relatives, I became the servant of all. I had to get up very early in the morning to start the fire and clean the
compound, before anybody else got up. I would have to start to prepare the food for the men's breakfasts,
although during rice planting or harvesting time, the males would be in the fields very early and food would
be taken to them when the sun had been up for three or four hours. I was forbidden to touch or feed the
cows but I had to get the goats ready to be taken to the fields by one of the brothers or by one of the older
women.
With all the problems of my husband's night time needs, I became infected inside and was always bleeding
and sore. It became so bad that I screamed every time he used my body and I could not accept him. I
would scream at the pain and the more I screamed the angrier my husband would get and the more he
would beat me. His father also beat me and he also touched my body, which made me scream more.
Eventually, after many weeks of beatings and pain and bleeding, the husband's father beat me all the way
to the ferry and then beat me all the way to my father’s house, where my husband's father shouted at my
father that I was a useless whore and not fit for any man.
He claimed that I was now divorced and that his son would take a better girl for a wife and that I had no
claim on my ex-husband. After he had stormed off shouting (loud enough for the entire world to hear) that I
was a whore and that he would demand recompense from my father for his troubles. My father started to
shout at me, and raised his fist to beat me, but I must have fallen down or fainted. I woke up to find that I
was on my old blanket in the house with my mother washing my face with a cool damp rag. My mother
gave me some medicine to help stop the bleeding and infection, but it took many weeks for the pain and
bad discharge to stop. It did not matter that I was sick, as I was now supposed to be a woman who had
work to do about the house, as a servant to my own family if I wanted to eat.
My father has threatened many times to throw me out of the house to fend for myself, as happens to many
divorced or discarded girls. I had brought shame to my father and mother because I was divorced and
because I could not fulfil the duties of a wife during my tenth year of life.
The contents of this story are actual facts, although they are based on facts about one or two real girls who are
the inhabitants of the small islands in the river areas of Bangladesh. The average age of these child marriages is
eleven years old, with some of the communities marrying their daughters at as young as eight years old, whilst
others wait until the girls are twelve to thirteen. Many of these girls conceive at the age of twelve and can
expect to have five or six children before they are twenty years old. No full accredited data is available to be
able to give specific facts, but the story above reflects very nearly the expectations or these island communities.
It is estimated that up to twenty percent of these islands female population are divorced, widowed or deserted
and although it is expected that over the next few generations this number will decrease, the habit of child
marriages will continue for many generations more.
For these island communities, child marriage is the normal practice and it reflects the need of the male
population to ensure that their daughters are ‘pure’ at the time of marriage. To ensure this, the girls are married
off before they reach puberty. It says little for the male population of these islands that they marry their
daughters so early to ensure that they are pure and untouched, as it is the male population who is responsible
for any girls who are not ‘pure’.

This true story was written in August 1995 as part of a series of short biographies that depicted the lives of women
and girls in northern Bangladesh. Only the names have been changed; the rest is as it existed in 1995. The author
spent several years in this area working on a project funded by the British Government.

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