Over 22 percent adolescent girls there become a mother before they reach 18
Jhumur Modi of Sylhet's Burjan Tea Estate was only 13 years old when she was married off last month.
Soon after her marriage, she fell sick and was admitted to a local hospital. Already, she has returned home but is yet to recover fully.
Another girl, Moni Das, now 18, from another tea garden was married off at 10. After one year, she gave birth to twin babies. She now has 6.5-year-old twin daughters and a 3-year-old son. The mother and her three children are in poor health, suffering from various diseases round the year.
Jhumur and Moni are not the only examples of early marriage at tea gardens in Sylhet.
Forty-six percent of adolescent girls there fall victim to child marriage, while 22.2 percent of them become a mother before they reach 18, according to a survey jointly conducted by Unicef and Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS).
The survey was conducted in 2018 exclusively on the population at tea gardens in Sylhet, and the report was published last year.
Terming child marriage as the fate of tea garden girls, Nigat Sadia, director of Usha, a local non-government organisation working with adolescent girls and children, said superstition, lack of security, poverty and education lead to early marriage in the area.
Jhumur's father, Anjan Modi, a tea garden labourer, believes, "Girls should be married off at that [early] age. It is not right to keep girls at parents' home for long as it leads to various hazards."
"The earlier they are married off the better," he said.
But to reduce maternal and child mortality rates and prevent pre-mature childbirths for normal development of adolescent girls, the government has banned the marriage of girls and boys before they are 18 and 21 respectively. However, the law was amended in 2017, keeping a particular provision for under-age marriage by taking permission from the court in special situations.
Following the law and public awareness initiatives from the administration, child marriage has come down slightly in Sylhet.
A 2019 survey shows that the child marriage rate in Sylhet is 31 percent which, according to a 2012-13 survey by Unicef and BBS, was 38.5 percent.
Mostafizur Rahman, the immediate past divisional commissioner of Sylhet, thinks the rate of child marriage in tea gardens is still much higher.
"People working in tea gardens lag behind in many ways. We have to create awareness among them, and we have already taken some initiatives regarding how to stop child marriage," he said.
He said the culture of tea garden people is "different from ours, and it takes some time to convey a message to them. But we have been trying".
Sylhet hosts 138 tea gardens out of total 162 in Bangladesh.
According to the Unicef-BBS survey, 47.7 percent adolescent girls in Moulvibazar, 41.3 percent in Habiganj and 39.1 percent in Sylhet district are married off before 18.
Meanwhile, 10.3 percent women in Habiganj, 14.3 percent in Moulvibazar and 14.2 percent in Sylhet district are married off before they are 15.
Experts say early marriage poses health risks for girls. In most cases, they give birth to malnourished children, and quite often the mother and the baby die.
Parash Goala, a midwife at Lakkatura Tea Garden, said most of the adolescent girls there become a mother soon after their marriage. These adolescent girls suffer from various complications during and after childbirth.
A Unicef survey on tea garden child mortality rate says the rate of neonatal death in tea gardens is 55 percent. Of the total live births, 68 percent die within one year of birth.
Sylhet Divisional Director (Health) Dr Debpada Roy said women face various physical problems like high blood pressure, anaemia and malnutrition due to child marriage.