Growing Up Sexually






In early days, marrigeable girls from Comilla District, Bangladesh were described as being infants or slightly older[1]. As reviewed by Keddie (1979:p325)[2] the average age of marriage among Muslim women was 12.9 in 1961, in 1968 it was 15.9 and by 1976 it had risen to 17.4 (cf. Zaman)[3]. “Arends-Kuening and Amin (2000)[[4]] report that the series of child marriage acts in Bangladesh, which gradually increased the legal age of marriage from 12 to 18, had almost no effect on the timing of marriage for rural households other than to encourage massive misreporting on marriage documents”[5].

Girls may be married off at the onset of puberty[6]. Islam and Mahmud (1996)[7] (orig. footnotes inserted):


“Traditionally, young age at marriage and early childbearing have been encouraged in Bangladesh. According to Aziz and Maloney (1985)[[8]], Bangladeshi children, especially in rural areas, are socialized to assume their respective male and female roles well before puberty. This phenomenon has been observed more strictly among girls than boys, because of the impact of girls’ behaviour during adolescence both on their own reputation and that of their family. Before the end of childhood, a girl is expected to begin learning proper decorum for a female so that she will be able to play the part well once puberty begins. The most dangerous stage of life of a Bangladeshi girl is the period following the onset of menstruation when a number of changes occur in her body, making her physically mature. At this stage, several restrictions are imposed by society on her movements, dress, food and freedom to make her own choices. When a young girl grows up, her parents keep her movements under surveillance. Such restrictions on the movement of unmarried girls and women sometimes serve to impede her education. She is advised at all costs to protect her virginity until marriage (Maloney and others, 1981)[[9]]. In rural Bangladesh there are many social pressures to “marry off” pubescent girls (Aziz and Maloney, 1985)[[10]]. If the marriage of a pubescent girl is delayed, her parents, and sometimes the girl herself, are made to feel guilty. Sometimes neighbours and even relatives criticize parents if they have not married off their daughters soon after the onset of menarche. In such a situation, parents of poor socio-economic standing may begin to think of their daughter as a burden”.


Khan et al.(2002)[11] observed that the age of marriage lies around 15 rurally. Control on female sexuality is organised through attaching negative values to any discussion of sexuality, controlling mobility and friendships with members of the opposite sex, and discouraging access to relevant literature. “Girls are often informed about sexual intercourse just a few days before marriage”, a responsibility taken by sisters-in-law, married friends or some elder female relative. Submission is stressed. Both information and experience are more pronounced in boys.


Kahn (2001:p7)[12]:


“Before the girls marry, the main sources of information about sexual life, though often in vague terms, are sister-in-laws (33%), close friends (30%), other senior members of the family (9%) and boy friends (about 9%). Analysis of the information provided shows that in most of the cases, the information given by married friends is more detailed and accurate than that provided by relatives or sister-in-laws. However, if the sister-in-laws or other married sisters are of the same age, they may also provide accurate and detailed information on sexuality”.



A 1999 report[13] found that most girls in the study reported that they did not have any knowledge about menstruation before they experienced it. Similarly, “[m]ost boys reported that they did not have any idea about wet dreams before they experienced them. As they did not know that these are normal phenomena, when they experienced them, they become confused as to whether they were sick and in the long run they would visit healthcare providers. They mostly reported going to traditional healers for this purpose”.


“Regarding sexual health, many boys believed that masturbation was bad for one's health. They mentioned that it causes weakness of the body, and would change the shape of penis. It was also commonly believed that this activity might have some long-term adverse effects. Both boys and girls reported knowing of commercial sex workers and brothels. They stated that young boys and young men go to brothels”.




“In each of the study areas, there was at least one adolescent boy participant who knew about an adult male who was having sex with adolescent boys, and adolescent boys who were having sex with boys of similar age. This activity was termed as ‘jeena.’ Sometimes the men who were doing so provided incentives to their young partners. Some of the men were said to have forced young boys to have anal sex”.



“A recent large-scale study (Barkat et al., 2000)[[14]] found that over half of the married adolescents in the study were unaware of the causes of menstruation (58%) or the consequences of unprotected sex (57%). More than half (57%) of the unmarried adolescents and over 40% of the married adolescents had not heard of menstrual regulation” (Akhter, 2003:p123)[15]


A Dutch note by Bosch and Hutter (2002:p76)[16]:


“De eerste menstruatie is dus niet alleen een mijlpaal in de fysieke ontwikkeling van een meisje, maar vormt ook een cruciale gebeurtenis in haar sociale ontwikkelingsproces. Ondanks dit grote belang is een gebeurtenis als menstruatie (mashik) echter omgeven door taboes en speciale gedragsregels. In Bangladesh wordt menstruatie nog vaak met schaamte bekeken (menstruatiebloed wordt gezien als ‘the greatest of all pollution’ (Blanchet, 1987). Naar menstruatie wordt verwezen als was het een ziekte: shorir kharap, wat zoveel wil zeggen als ‘slechte conditie’. Menstruerende vrouwen worden geacht zoveel mogelijk binnen te blijven, niet te koken of voedsel te bereiden en niet op de rijstvelden te werken. Ook seks (en met de echtgenoot in één bed slapen) en bidden of lezen uit de Koran zijn op deze dagen niet toegestaan. Er lijkt een groot taboe te zijn op het spreken over menstruatie. Jonge meisjes zijn daardoor vaak nauwelijks op deze gebeurtenis voorbereid en weten niet waarom ze menstrueren. Uiteraard ontwikkelen ook jongensadolescenten zich in fysiek opzicht (groeispurt, eerste zaadlozing, groei van gezichtshaar en verandering van stem), maar voor hen heeft dit niet direct grote sociale gevolgen. De belangrijkste ‘rite de passage’ voor jongens vindt plaats vóór ze de adolescentieperiode ingaan, dat wil zeggen vóórdat ze geslachtsrijp worden. Moslim jongens worden op de leeftijd van acht tot negen jaar besneden. In tegenstelling tot de geheimzinnige en schaamtevolle houding die ten opzichte van menstruatie lijkt te leven wordt deze gebeurtenis uitbundig en in volle openbaarheid gevierd. Familie en vrienden worden uitgenodigd en er worden speciale rituelen uitgevoerd en bijzondere gerechten geserveerd. Een dergelijke ceremonie laat zich misschien vergelijken met een huwelijksfeest. De nieuwe levensfase die de jongen ingaat wordt gevierd en de status die daarbij hoort —een grotere familiale en religieuze verantwoordelijkheid— is iets om trots op te zijn. Dit alles lijkt in schril contrast te staan met de gevoelens van schaamte die de eerste menstruatie van meisjes omgeven”.



Additional refs.:


§         Barkat & Majid (January, 2003) Adolescent Reproductive Health in Bangladesh: Status, Issues, Policies, and Programs. []

§         Blanchet, Th. Et al. (2003) Bangladeshi Girls Sold As Wives in North India. Drishti Research Centre, Dhaka. Study Submitted to the Academy for Educational Development (AED), Dhaka []

§         Cash, K., Hashima-E-Nasreen, Aziz, A., Bhuiya, A., Mushtaque, A., Chowdhury, R. & Chowdhury, S. (2001) Without Sex Education: exploring the social and sexual vulnerabilities of rural Bangladeshi girls and boys, Sex Educ 1,3:219-33

§         Chowdhury, F. D. (2004) The socio-cultural context of child marriage in a Bangladeshi village, Int J Soc Welfare 13,3244–53

§         CRLP (2004) Women of the World: Laws and Policies Affecting Their Reproductive Lives: South Asia. Progress Report []

§         Rahman, M. M. (1986) Age at consummation in Bangladesh, Chittagong University Studies (Science) 23:32-7

§         Rashid, Sabina Faiz (2003) Communicating with rural adolescents about sex education: experiences from BRAC, Bangladesh, in Bott, S., Jejeebhoy, Sh., Shah, I. & Puri, Ch. (Eds.) Towards adulthood: exploring the sexual and reproductive health of adolescents in South Asia. World Health Organization, Department of Reproductive Health and Research, p168-73 []

§         United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Bangladesh (March 2005) Summary of End line Survey on Adolescent Reproductive Health. Online report []

§         Bosch, Au. M. (2005). Adolescents’ reproductive health in rural Bangladesh: the impact of early childhood nutritional anthropometry. Doctoral Thesis, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, The Netherlands. Full: []



AV Media


§         Moni's milestone [videocassette]: early marriage. Tokyo: JOICFP, [2000?]. 1 videocassette ; PAL ; 10 min. ; sd., col. (Women's empowerment series, no. 1) (JOICFP film series) English []




Janssen, D. F., Growing Up Sexually. Volume I. World Reference Atlas. 0.2 ed. 2004. Berlin: Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology, Berlin

Last revised: Sept 2005



[1] Hunter, W. W. (1876) A Statistical Account of Bengal. Vol. 6. Delhi: D. K. Publishing House

[2] Keddie, N. R. (1979) Problems in the Study of Middle Eastern Women, Int J Middle East Stud 10,2:225-40

[3] Zaman, M. Q. (1982) Marriage and family types in Bangladesh: a village study, Man in India 62,2:129-39

[4] Arends-Kuenning, Mary & Sajeda Amin (2000) Effects of schooling incentive programs on household time allocation. Policy Research Division Working Paper No. 133, Population Council, and Comparative Education Review (forthcoming 2004)

[5] Field, E. (Sept. 2004) Consequences of Early Marriage for Women in Bangladesh. Harvard University. Draft accessed Sept 18, 2004

[6] Khan, N. Z. & Lynch, M. A. (1997) Recognizing Child Maltreatment in Bangladesh, Child Abuse & Negl 21,8:815-8, at p816-7

[7] Islam, M. M. & Mahmud, M. (1996) Marriage Patterns and Some Issues Related to Adolescent Marriage in Bangladesh, Asia-Pacific Population J 11,3:27-42

[8] Aziz, K. M. A. & Maloney, C. (1985) Life Stage, Gender and Fertility in Bangladesh. Dhaka: International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh

[9] Maloney, C., Aziz, A. K. M. & Sarker, P.C. (1981) Beliefs and Fertility in Bangladesh. Dhaka: International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh

[10] Op.cit.

[11] Khan, N. Z., Townsend, J. W. & D’Costa, Sh. (2002) Behind closed doors: a qualitative study of sexual behaviour of married women in Bangladesh, Culture, Health & Sex 4,2:237-56;

[12] Khan, M. E. (2001) Peeping behind the closed doors: a qualitative study of the sexual behaviour of married women in Bangladesh. IUSSP XXIVth General Population Conference, Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, August 18-24, 2001 []

[13] Nahar, Q., Tuñón, C., Houvras, I., Gazi, R., Reza, M., Huq, N. L. & Barkat-e-Khuda (1999) Reproductive Health Needs of Adolescents in Bangladesh: A Study Report. ICDDR,B: Centre for Health and Population Research, Working Paper No. 130 []

[14] Barkat, A., Khan, SH., Majid, H. & Sabina, N. (2000) Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health in Bangladesh: A Needs Assessment. Dhaka, Bangladesh, Human Development Research Centre, prepared for Family Planning Association of Bangladesh

[15]Akhter, Halida Hanum (2003) Menstrual regulation among adolescents in Bangladesh: risks and experiences, in Bott, S., Jejeebhoy, Sh., Shah, I. & Puri, Ch. (Eds.) Towards adulthood: exploring the sexual and reproductive health of adolescents in South Asia. World Health Organization, Department of Reproductive Health and Research, p123-6 []

[16] Bosch, A. & Hutter, I. (2002) Achtergronden, opzet en datacollectie in een levensloopstudie naar reproductieve gezondheid van adolescenten in ruraal Bangladesh, Bevolking & Gezin [Dutch] 31,2:67-94 []