Bangladesh took a “devastating” step back this week from its pledge to end child marriage, Human Rights Watch officials said Friday. A new provision in the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 adopted by parliament on Monday allows girls under the age of 18 to marry under “special circumstances” with their parents’ and the court’s permission. The provision is now awaiting the president’s approval to become law.
Under the original act, boys had to be 21 years old before they could marry and girls had to be at least 18 years old with no exceptions. However, the law was largely ignored, especially in poorer areas because dowries – though illegal – are typically smaller for young brides.
As a result, Bangladesh still has the highest rate of child marriage in Asia and the fifth-highest in the world, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). By their 15th birthday, 18 percent of girls in Bangladesh are married; by their 18th birthday, 52 percent are married.
Still, that’s a significant drop from 2005 when 66 percent of girls under 18 were married. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina bolstered that progress with a pledge at the 2014 Girl Summit to end marriage for children under 15 by 2021 and all child marriage by 2041.
But now, the new provision doesn’t set a minimum age for girls to marry, and “special circumstances” are not clearly defined. Human rights and child advocacy groups fear the change could undo all the recent progress made, however slowly, toward eliminating child marriages in Bangladesh – an important step to increasing education and curtailing maternal and infant mortality rates.
“The progress Bangladesh has made to address child marriage is impressive, and reflects a real commitment from the highest levels of the government,” Lakshmi Sundaram, executive director of Girls Not Brides, said in a January press release about the upcoming vote for the provision. “Now is not the time to regress.”
But lawmakers who support the provision do not see it as a retreat in the fight against early marriage, because the provision imposes harsher consequences on adults who marry children. Instead of a maximum one month imprisonment, a 1,000 Taka ($12.50) fine or both, adults can now be sentenced to a maximum of two years in prison, a 100,000 Taka ($1,250) fine or both.
Lawmakers also believe the provision protects girls amid the “realities” of society, such as “accidental or unlawful pregnancies.”
“We’ve fixed the minimum age for girls to marry at 18. But what if any of them becomes pregnant at 12-13 or 14-15 and abortion can’t be done? What will happen to the baby? Will society accept it?” the prime minister said in defense of the draft in Parliament in December.
The provision, she believes will allow those girls to marry with their parents’ permission so the child can obtain “legal status” in society.
“They [the critics]know nothing about Bangladesh’s social system,” Hasina said.
But lawyers, experts and rights groups worry that under the new law, girls may be forced by their families or society to marry their rapists. Instead, Bangladesh should be doing more to help adolescent girls avoid “accidental or unlawful pregnancies” with better access to safe, legal reproductive health services, contraception and sex education, Human Rights Watch officials said.
“The focus now must be on containing the damage caused by Bangladesh legalizing child marriage,” Heather Barr, senior researcher on women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, said in a press release Friday. “Nothing can change the fact that this is a destructive law. But carefully drafted regulations can mitigate some of the harm to girls.”
Besides more comprehensive and accessible sexual health services and education, Human Rights Watch also noted the importance of legal advocates for children. Judges and social workers must interview children outside the presence of their family, intended spouse and in-laws to verify maturity and consent, the rights group said. They must also be trained to recognize cases of violence.
“Judges are now the last line of protection against this law being used to force girls into marriage against their will or even allow rapists to escape penalty by marrying their victims,” Barr said. “The government should provide clear guidance for judges, so that this provision is used rarely and with great caution.”
“Girls at risk of unwanted pregnancy face real problems in Bangladesh,” she added, “but the answer isn’t child marriage.”