DHAKA - Bangladesh must step up efforts to halt an "epidemic" of child marriage throughout the country where nearly one third of girls wed before they turn 15, a rights group said Tuesday.
Although Bangladesh has cut poverty levels in recent years, numbers of child marriages remain huge, partly because of regular natural disasters that force already struggling families into greater desperation, Human Rights Watch said.
The campaign group urged 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 a 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 on the issue to stop girls as young as 10 marrying.
Bangladesh has the world's highest rate of marriage of girls under the age of 15, at 29 per cent, despite it being illegal. Officials are often bribed to fake birth certificates to allow the marriages to happen, the report said.
Last September, Hasina's government unveiled a plan to lower the marriage age to reflect the reality of Bangladesh society, sparking an outcry from rights groups.
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.
Rashida said in the report 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, called "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 per cent 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."