Dhaka, November 25 (Dhaka Tribune/NIA): The draft Bangladesh Child Marriage Act of 2016, approved by the cabinet on Thursday, allows marriage of minors to take place if the girl in question becomes pregnant accidentally or illegally, and her honor has to be salvaged.
Activists have been widely critical of the proposed Act, as they believe it fails to address the problem of child marriage. Many believe that the act would in fact increase incidences of child marriage rather than reduce it.
Gender expert Fawzia Khondker Eva pointed out that loopholes in the new act would be detrimental to efforts to prevent child marriage.
“This is a completely contradictory law and will risk the lives of our girl children,” she said.
Dhaka University journalism professor Geeti Ara Nasrin warned that increase in child marriage will increase violence against women.
Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, despite a three-decade-old law banning marriage of girls under the age of 18. In September 2014, measures were proposed to lower the marriageable age for girls from 18 to 16 years.
On November 24, the cabinet approved a draft Child Marriage Restraint Act 2016, chaired by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. According to the proposed law, anyone under 18 years of age in general will be considered a child. For the purpose of marriage any male under the age of 21 and female under the age of 18 will be considered a minor.
The new legislation includes a provision allowing child marriage in ‘special cases’, such as a girl becoming pregnant accidentally or illegally.
In case of violation of the Act, there is provision for a maximum penalty of Taka 100,000 along with two years’ imprisonment.
The Act also stipulates that a marriage between two minors or between a minor and an adult will be considered a child marriage.
If a child marriage is registered, the license of the marriage conductor will be cancelled.
Highest in the World
According to a UNICEF study, Bangladesh has the highest rate of child marriage of girls under the age of 15 in the world, with 29 percent of girls there married before age 15.
Two percent of girls in Bangladesh are married before age 11. Successive inaction by the central government and complicity by local officials allow child marriage, including of very young girls, to continue unchecked.
“Child marriage is an epidemic in Bangladesh, and only worsens with natural disasters,” said Heather Barr, senior researcher on women’s rights at Human Rights Watch.
Parents who are unable to feed their children, or pay for their education costs, may seek a husband for their daughters simply so that the girls can eat. Poor girls lack access to education because their families cannot afford fees for exams, uniforms, stationery, and other associated costs even when education is “free”. Girls who leave school are often married by their parents. Sexual harassment of unmarried girls – and failure by police to stem this harassment – also helps prompt child marriage. Social pressures and traditions, including the widespread practice of paying dowry, and lower dowries for younger girls, make child marriage not only accepted, but expected in some communities.
Another finding of the UNICEF report is the role natural disasters play in child marriage. Bangladesh is among the countries in the world most affected by natural disasters and climate change; many families are pushed by disasters into deepening poverty, which increases the risk that their daughters will be married as children. Families described feeling under pressure to arrange marriages quickly for their young daughters in the wake of a disaster, or in the anticipation of one. This was particularly common among families who faced losing their home and land through the gradual destruction caused by river erosion.
Many local government officials also fail girls at risk. Awareness is growing that marriage of girls under age 18 is illegal under Bangladeshi law. But this awareness is fatally undermined by widespread complicity by local government officials in facilitating child marriages. Interviewees consistently described local government officials issuing forged birth certificates showing girls’ ages as over 18, in return for bribes of as little as US$1.30. Even when marriages are prevented by local officials, as they sometimes are, families find it easy to hold the marriage in a different jurisdiction.