The large majority of women in Bangladesh marry as adolescents, although the prevalence of the practice has declined somewhat in recent decades. According to an analysis of 2011 national survey data from ever-married women of reproductive age,1 nearly four in five women (78%) had married for the first time before age 18, which is the legal age in Bangladesh. The likelihood of adolescent marriage was lower among women with at least a secondary education than among those with no formal education (odds ratios, 0.1–0.6) and was lower among women whose husband had at least a secondary education than among those whose husband had no formal education (0.5–0.8). Being in the highest wealth group rather than the lowest and living in an urban area rather than a rural one were also negatively associated with adolescent marriage (0.7 and 0.6, respectively); Muslim women were more likely than women of other religions to have married before age 18 (1.9). The proportion of women who had married as an adolescent was lower in 2011 than in 1993–1994, when nearly nine in 10 women had married before age 18.

For the study, investigators analyzed 2011 Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey (BDHS) data from the 16,200 female survey participants aged 15–49 who reported having ever been married. They calculated the mean age at marriage and the prevalence of adolescent marriage, and performed multiple binary logistic regression analysis to identify factors associated with adolescent marriage. In addition, analysis of variance was conducted using data from earlier BDHS surveys (1993–1994, 1996–1997, 1999–2000, 2004 and 2007) to assess trends in age at first marriage and adolescent marriage over time.

Among women in the sample, age at first marriage ranged from 10 to 48 years. Mean age at first marriage was 16 years and varied by social and demographic characteristics: For example, mean age at first marriage was lower among women living in rural areas than among those in urban areas (15.4 vs. 16.2) and among women with no formal education than among those who had more than a secondary education (14.8 vs. 19.8).

Overall, 78% of women had married as adolescents; 73% were aged 13–17 at the time of marriage, and 6% were 12 or younger. In regression analyses, women with a secondary education or higher had lower odds of marrying before age 18 than those with no formal education (odds ratio, 0.1–0.6); similarly, women whose husband had a secondary education or higher had lower odds of marrying before age 18 than those whose husband had no formal education (0.5–0.8). In addition, women in the top wealth tertile were less likely than those in the lowest, and urban residents were less likely than rural residents, to have married as an adolescent (0.7 and 0.6, respectively). On the other hand, Muslim women’s odds of marrying as an adolescent were nearly twice those of women of other religions (1.9).

In trend analyses, the mean age at first marriage increased by two years between 1993–1994 and 2011, from 14 years to 16 years. During the same period, the proportion of women who had married as adolescents fell from 88% to 78%.

According to the authors, their results highlight illiteracy and poverty as correlates of adolescent marriage and barriers to ongoing initiatives to promote awareness about the drawbacks of early marriage. They suggest that parents—who typically arrange marriages in Bangladesh—may be becoming more concerned about their daughters’ futures, and that knowledge of the health and economic implications of early marriage may be spreading among young women themselves. The authors conclude that “the decreasing trend in [adolescent marriage] indicates an improvement over the past two decades, but more effort is needed to further reduce and eventually eliminate the practice.”—S. London