Laboni  23, is a free-minded, confidently speaking girl living in the ward-1 of Bhashantek slum. Her family owns land in Bhashantek, and has been living there for generations. Although her uncles have managed to secure good jobs as they were educated and move outside the slum area, Laboni’s parents who didn’t complete primary school, were not able to do so. 

Since childhood, Laboni grew up seeing the differences in living environment, conduct, income and social standing between her family and her uncles’. Even her parents tried consciously to instill this realization within her and her siblings. They valued education as the stepping stone to a good job and hence, good life. This inspired Laboni to value education for herself.

Laboni never mingled with the boys pursuing her or gave in to temptations thrown towards her from her surroundings- friends in relationships, neighbors talking about boys nor propositions from slum-boys. Her heart was set to study as far as possible and someday get out of this slum.

She and her parents have been relentlessly refusing proposals brought forth by relatives and match-makers and she have been continuing her education all the way through to Bachelor studies. She studies in Titumir College now, and has a good circle of friends who aspires to work and be established in future; she loves to hang out with them, visiting places like Ahsan Manjil, and have discussions about life.

Their family and living environment is much better than Laboni’s in the slum, and she is inspired by that. She wants a good life in a healthy environment, well-mannered community and she understands that a good job, education and marrying a boy from such contexts will help her achieve that.

Laboni is therefore determined not to get into a relationship nor marry someone in the slum. Her parents support her fully in this decision, and they disregard all the negative things the community people, neighbors or relatives say to them because they are delaying their daughter’s marriage. According to Laboni,

“The people will say what suits them best, they don’t have your best interests at heart. Your life is yours, and their life is theirs. Why would you destroy your life listening to strangers?”

Changing Social Norms

There are 29.5 million adolescents in Bangladesh, representing nearly one-fifth of the country’s total population (BBS, Population Census, 2011). Although the health and well-being of this group is critical to the country’s future, issues around SRHR remain a cultural taboo, and hence most of them enter their adolescent years poorly informed about SRHR issues and unaware of their needs. In the wake of urbanization coupled with digitisation, adolescents are at a critical juncture of time, where they grapple with their vulnerabilities in the clash of normative and changing social boundaries. For instance, For instance, new avenues of work have allowed mobility for young girls, while the ease of access to mobile phones have allowed them to perpetuate incidences of love relations between adolescents (often leading to elopement and early marriage). 
As urbanization changes the face of poverty in Bangladesh, endemic insecurities within the urban environment force low-income households to deploy new strategies of labour mobilization that challenge traditional patriarchal ideologies, and in the process, gender dynamics. (Nicola Banks, 2013). As a result, social boundaries change and evolve over time. For example, Dhaka being a hub of migrant workers, each of whom bring with them their own values, beliefs, expectations and cultural practice- blends and conflicts with the other person’s views. As a result, the structure of ‘social norms’ in that context may be fluid/ in constant state of change. 

Under these circumstances, adolescents tend to be the most vulnerable group of population that is affected, given their nature of interaction with the changing norms. They are under pressure to adhere to age-old existing social structures, while they are also exposed to a number of external influences (such as textbooks, local literature, media, peer groups, workplace) that shape their expectations. For instance, our fieldwork in urban slums has observed visible paradoxes of conservatism and influence of media within the slum: girls as young as 6 year olds wore headscarves, while adolescent girls wear leggings and makeup, and boys sport trendy haircuts and t-shirts with pop culture references. There are significant gaps in understanding how the unique economic and social realities of urban slums and its effects on adolescent lives, SRHR and gender roles and through our research we have tried to understand the changing social and gender norms affecting adolescent girls and boys living in poor informal settlements.


Although the government of Bangladesh has adopted several policy changes to address the problem of child marriage, these measures have not been sufficient to significantly reduce the scope of the problem. The government has made nationwide birth registration a policy priority, but local officials frequently accept bribes to provide counterfeit birth certificates so that child marriages can take place (Human Rights Watch, 2015). Issues relating to entry into and dissolution of marriage are governed largely by personal laws, statutory and non-statutory, which are specific to each community. Therefore, even though child marriages are statutorily punishable, they remain valid under various personal laws (including Hindu and Muslim law).

Recently, the government has attempted more extensive legal reforms to address chid marriage, but these efforts have been mired in controversy. After 45 years of liberation of Bangladesh, the Ministry for Women and Children's Affairs of the Bangladesh government amended a new law to replace the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929. A draft Child Marriage Restraint Bill, 2016 was approved by Cabinet in November 2016 with a special provision, and the Bill was passed by Parliament and gazette after receiving Presidential assent on 11 March 2017.

The new Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017 retains the minimum age of marriage at 18 years for girls and at 21 years for boys, but supplemented by a clause. The clause permits girls to be legally married before 18 ‘under special circumstances’, e.g. with parental consent or in the case of pregnancy. Informal legal systems within urban slums also play a role in addressing early child marriage. Because of the absence of government support in urban slums, slum residents are heavily dependent on local community leaders for access to basic services and mediation or 'shalish' in interpersonal conflicts (Hasemi & Camellia, 2010). 

For more information, please revert to our blog on legal matters: 

Urban Slum dynamics

Bangladesh is urbanising rapidly with28% of its population living in urban areas, and is expected to have more than 50% urban population by 2050 (UN 2012).The bulk of the urban population is concentrated in Dhaka, the capital city, with a population of nearly 14 million and projected to become the sixth largest megacity in the Asia-Pacific region by 2020. Recent estimates suggest that there are a total of 2,232,114 slum dwellers which is estimated to be 6.33% of the urban population of the country; while the annual population growth rate is 2.70% (BBS report, Population Census, 2014).According to the census, Dhaka itself hosts about 746075 people living in slums. The living conditions inside the slum are disappointing, owing to unhygienic sanitation, poor infrastructure, constant threat of eviction, drug abuse and sexual harassment to name a few. 

The figures are continuously increasing due to rising number of migrants coming into the city (a BBS 2007 report stated almost 1000 people migrate to Dhaka city every day) due to various socio-economic push-pull factors, including frequent natural disasters, increasing pressure on land, rural unemployment and underemployment and rural-urban income disparity, as well as ‘pull’ factors such as employment opportunities and better living standards in the city. In fact, around 50.96% of slum dwellers come to slum areas in search of work, 28.76% for poverty-driven causes, 7.04% for river erosion, 2.15% are driven away from slums and 0.84% due to natural calamities (BBS report, Population Census, 2014). The last decade has also seen enormous growth in the Bangladeshi garment export industry that employed 3.2 million women in 2014, many of whom are migrant workers, living alone and without families in cities. 

Researchers at the BRAC JPG School of Public Health ask why Dhaka is an anomaly in South Asia: a metropolis with rising employment for poor women but little difference from rural areas in age at first marriage (Rashid, 2006). Opportunities for earning income in Dhaka have increased for adolescent girls over the last decades due to the enormous growth in the Bangladeshi garment export industry, which employed 3.2 million women in 2011–2012 (Rashid, 2013)– and yet the age at marriage has not risen in Dhaka (ICRW, 2013). Meetings with NGOs in Dhaka suggest

  • Insufficient knowledge-sharing among NGOs focusing on EM
  • Insufficient awareness of each other’s programs
  • Disconnect between academic research findings and NGO programming, given the donor-driven and time-constrained nature of NGO project cycle
Our research is a catalyst for shifting the paradigm of research on early marriage and interventions from almost exclusively rural-based to examining practices of early marriage among these poor urban communities.



Through our research we've attempted to chart pathways of the lives of adolescent girls in urban slums.  Below is an example of the pathway narrative of the ‘average’ adolescent girl growing up in an urban slum.

  • At start of adolescence, most girls are in school. A girl child’s option of staying in school depends on her family’s financial stability. But a girl will drop out of school as soon as her family faces hardship – whether through parental unemployment, flood, or eviction etc. It is the girl who will be taken out of school rather than the boy.
  • Early school attendance has equalized between girls and boys in slums but as children get older parents still choose to invest in boys more than girls.
Evidence: Sharmin, a 22-year-old unmarried garment worker who never went to school (her family migrated from her village in Comilla to Dhaka). Her father died, her two older sisters were married and she was sent to work at a garments factory when she was 15 years old. She is now the sole earning-member of the family providing the financial support to enable her two younger brothers to attend college. Rather than this being an example of a female breadwinner, this can be seen as the continuation of discrimination whereby families choose to invest in boys’ futures rather than girls’.
Contrasting evidence: many parents expressed intention/desire to keep their daughters in school and understood the value of educating their daughters but the need to either increase household income or reduce households costs means that daughters get pulled from school.
  • Female school dropouts have two options, none of which invest in the girl’s future: either they stay at home and help with household chores or they take paid work as a domestic servant or a garment worker. It is expected that their income be handed over to the household to finance family needs, and cover school costs of younger children.
  • The unmarried adolescent girls at home (but dropped out of school)are often seen as a financial burden. The situation is made more precarious when their own core family unit has broken down and their parents are no longer around. These girls tend to have little agency around marriage decisions.In one case, a girl was being protected by one side of her family but another side of her family manipulated the girl into giving consent to marry a boy with little prospects in a family who would not care for the girl. This was only possible because the different branches of the family lived in different parts of the city and could not have happened in the rural areas. The case highlights the complete lack of agency young adolescent girls has with regard to decision-making around marriage – especially when these girls have no parents.
  • Unmarried adolescent girls in paid employment:Urban life offers greater access to employment and financial resources.However, the majority of work taken by girls is done because of poverty and necessity. The work (at garment factories) is tough, and involves long hours and low pay. Rather than urban life offering girls some form of emancipation, the poor urban life simply places even greater social responsibilities, expectations and sanctions on them than before.
  • Older unmarried adolescents and young women express reservations about marriage because they have seen how it does not offer the dream life they may once have thought. They’ve seen enough about the responsibilities and challenges of married life to fear it. Married life typically means less freedom of movement, pregnancy complications, childcare, additional domestic duties and having your life managed and controlled by your husband and in-laws. Most young adolescent girls hardly see that as an emancipated and fulfilling life.
  • Expectations of how girls should behave. Puberty brings feminine features, but the woman’s mature physical form is disapproved of (or feared?) by society leading young girls and women to increasingly cover themselves up. It’s also the reason why soon after puberty a girl is considered ready for marriage in order to prevent sexual teasing from men – but arguably also to protect men from these young women’s lure. Girls should cover up, be modest, not be visible and not expose themselves to men’s view.
    Evidence of exception:In spite of this, there is widespread evidence of girls sporting leggings/tights, wearing make-up, wearing fitted clothing and loosely draping scarves as fashion statements. 
  • Age difference between bride and groom narrowing. Traditionally, the idea of age of girl’s marriage was shaped by men’s preference for younger wives and cost of dowry being less for younger girls. But with the increase in incidence of love relations, most marriages today are between similar age groups.
  • Complex interplay of age and identity. Amongst the slum dwellers, there is an embedded assumption that 'married' implies 'adult', and most of these married 'adults' are 15-16 years old. In other words, there's almost no sense of transition about the stages of adulthood that they go through. As we've noted, most of the early married adolescent girls face the challenge of forming their adult identity at the same time as they are required to assume the duties of a wife and a mother which can create a great deal of mental stress. But who do they turn to? 
Adolescents in urban slums in Bangladesh face the same issues that adolescents all over the world do, except they have to experience their growing pains within the rigid social expectations that exist. For young people, the “rules of behavior” dictate that members of the opposite sex should not have relationships with one another outside of marriage. Doing so or even being perceived to be doing so, brings sanctions, ultimately leading to forced marriage for the girl, and not necessarily with the boy she was (or wasn’t) having a relationship with.We are aware of interesting contradictions and tensions within the interviews we have held, some of which are identified above, and intend to investigate these as we progress.