Our research: In Bangladesh, which is located on floodplains east of India, we are following 1,900 Bangladeshi adolescent girls and boys in rural Chittagong and urban Dhaka. We are also following 1,800 Rohingya refugee adolescents in Cox’s Bazar. Our research includes the adolescents themselves, their siblings, caregivers, teachers and other community members.
The context: Population growth has slowed, but approximately one in five Bangladeshi citizens are adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19. Moreover, although Bangladesh is on track to graduate to a middle-income country by 2024, one in four people live below the poverty line, making it one of five countries accounting for the world’s largest absolute numbers of people living in poverty.
Education and learning: Bangladesh has invested heavily in girls’ education over the last several decades. Girls are more likely to enrol in both primary and secondary school than boys – but boys remain more likely to complete secondary school than girls.1 Boys are also over-represented in both technical/vocational and higher education and have better access to information and technology.2 Poverty is a significant driver of school leaving for both girls and boys, but girls’ access to education is strongly shaped by social norms. Many fall behind in secondary school because they do not have time for homework (owing to household chores assigned to girls and not boys) or are less likely to have access to after-school tutoring (owing to parents’ preferences for spending money on their sons’ education).3 Others are removed from school as a result of marriage.4
Bodily autonomy, integrity and freedom from violence: Despite significant recent progress in reducing child marriage, most Bangladeshi girls marry as children. Three-fifths marry by age 18 and one in eight marries before 15.5 Of married adolescent girls, more than one-third experience physical violence – and one-quarter experience sexual violence – at the hands of the husbands.6 In addition, nearly 90% of teenage girls experience sexual harassment in their communities.7
Health, nutrition, and sexual and reproductive health: Due to child marriage and a continued preference for early childbearing, adolescent pregnancy is common in Bangladesh – three-fifths of girls have begun childbearing by the age of 19.8 Young mothers are unlikely to receive skilled delivery or postnatal care.9 Malnutrition remains common among Bangladeshi girls, which is especially problematic given their pregnancy rates. Data from the 2014 DHS shows that 31% of married girls aged 15–19 are undernourished.10
Psychosocial well-being: There is very little evidence about adolescent girls’ broader psychosocial well-being. Research has found that girls – especially urban girls – are at risk of poor mental health, due to their social isolation, sexual harassment, abuse and child marriage.11
Voice and agency: While there have been recent shifts towards more gender-equitable attitudes and norms, especially amongst younger people, adolescent girls’ voice and agency are tightly restricted by conservative social norms that see their roles largely confined to marriage and motherhood. This is reflected by the Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI), in which Bangladesh has the worst overall score among seven South Asian countries included.12 Whereas boys are allowed increasing freedom as they grow up, the restrictions on girls’ lives increase during adolescence, as parents try to protect their daughters from sexual harassment and violence, and preserve family ‘honour’.13
Economic empowerment: An estimated 1 million children between the ages of 10 and 14 work,14 with only 31% of child labourers combining work with school.15 The highest percentage of young adolescent girl workers is found in Dhaka, followed by Chittagong and Sylhet; however, exact numbers are unknown.17 18 In addition, girls under the age of 15 are comparatively invisible outside of educational statistics, and even older adolescents are often considered only in the broader category of married women.