Bangladesh's fight against child marriage is stymied by Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017

Beena* (name changed) was about six years of age, when her parents decided to send her off to work as house help for a well-off family in the nearby village. As time passed, she grew up to be a quirky 16-year old. In 2010, as is the case with many other children, who come from impoverished or economically marginalised households in Bangladesh, Beena’s father came looking for her to marry her off in exchange for a hefty dowry. Beena resisted and in the end, because of the law in place, her parents would have to go to great lengths—forge certificates to increase her age, fight communities working on the field against child marriages— she was let off. She has since moved on to work in one of the ready-made garments factories in the city and sends money back to her village home regularly.

She is one of the lucky few, however, all the progress made in preventing child marriages is very well likely to take a step back. The Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017 which was adopted by the Bangladesh Parliament on 27 February and signed by the president on 11 March introduces a loophole where a court can allow child marriage in “special cases.”

In the fight against child marriage, Bangladesh, a south Asian country deeply riddled by poverty yet one that is taking quick strides in development and women empowerment, fares as one of the worst.

According to a Unicef report, 52 percent girls are married off by the age of 18 and 18 percent are married off by the age of 15. To understand this better, let us take a look at what the term child marriage means:

According to the Unicef, child marriage is defined as a formal marriage or informal union before age 18, and is a reality for both boys and girls, although girls are disproportionately the most affected. Child marriage is widespread and can lead to a lifetime of disadvantage and deprivation.

“A child means every human being below the age of 18 years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier,” according to Convention on the Rights of the Children.

The Bangladesh parliament on 27 February passed the bill on the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 2017 which sets the minimum age for women to marry at 18 and for men at 21, but allows for younger brides and grooms under special circumstances, thus replacing a law dating back to the British colonial period. Much has been written about this new bill, in international media such as AFP, The Independent and leading English daily in Bangladesh The Daily Star, to throw light on one of the key loopholes in the bill.

Now what these ‘special circumstances’ will be, have not been laid out anywhere yet, nor is there a specified minimum age. As the Independent UK says, “this effectively brings down the marriageable age to zero”.

Arpita Das, senior programme manager of Combatting Violence against Women and Girls at Manusher Jonno Foundation, says they have worked hard at the field level and this provision of a ‘special circumstance’ just puts them at a cross roads.

Secretary of the Advocacy Forum Nasima Akter Jolly in a report published in The Daily Star said that the government wants to avoid unwarranted situations like child pregnancy.

However, one would think that early child marriage is conducive to child pregnancy, and therefore the new bill would only result in a rise of the problems they were trying to prevent.

What happens when you marry off a child for their best interest?

“There are fears that such a provision will legitimise statutory rape and encourage child marriage,” argues Unicef.
Under the provision of ‘special circumstance’ there is a very high chance that if a girl child gets pregnant, she will be forced to marry her rapist, simply to protect the honour of the unborn child. The mental, physical and economic well being of the girl child being married off under these special circumstances is completely overlooked.

Representational image

Representational image

Being married off, takes away from the child a chance to be a child. "Marrying as a child has a lifelong impact on a person's well-being. It limits opportunities and the chance to be a child," UNICEF's representative in Bangladesh Edouard Beigbeder was quoted as saying in an email in an article published on The Daily Star. Therefore under these special circumstances, a girl child will lose out on a chance at education and risk her health by carrying the child to full term.

Effects on empowerment and development

The world celebrated International Women’s Day on 8 March, where United States saw women striking from their regular work to highlight just how much they contribute to the economy and to the social system.

In Bangladesh, a large number of women are involved in the ready-made garment industry which accounts for around more than 80 percent of Bangladesh's total export earnings which is about USD 34 billion, according to the Exports Promotion Bureau Bangladesh.

According to Simeen Mahmud in her essay titled “Our Bodies, Our Selves: The Bangladesh Perspective,” empowerment is “a process of change that increases choice (resources) and increases the capacity to make favourable choices (agency).”

This freedom of choice dictates complete agency over one’s life, including the decision of marriage. In Bangladesh, like many other nations in the world, moral good is synonymous to chastity and bodily control is often in the hands of others. Imposed through restricted mobility, a girl is kept ‘chaste’ by being given less visibility, which in turn generates a stigma, that a girl is ‘impure’ or ‘unworthy’ once assaulted. Feminist movements and human rights bodies have been actively working to remove this image and change social perspective of women as commodities.

Thus the provisional clause reinforces the social ideal, impeding any progress through empowerment and development, perpetuating a state-enforced gender hierarchy. By dictating that marriages are permissible under circumstances regarding early pregnancies, it removes rights to self agency, and contradicts any act passed in the protective interests of women. It also creates a leeway around punitive laws and policies against rape, trafficking, and all other examples under the Cruelty to Women Act 1983 (amended in 1988), Acid Attack Crime Repression Act (2002), if the girl is married off to the very man who was responsible for her situation.

“The belief that getting your child married to her rapist will save her is completely groundless. People are only looking at addressing the short term repercussion of shame and a tarnished reputation for the girl and her family. However, in the long run, by compelling her to marry her abuser and enabling this through law, she is being forced into a life time of abuse and suppression. This man faces no repercussion for rape and instead finds himself with a wife to whom he may feel he has done a favor by marrying her. My question here is, why are we more worried about our honour and reputation rather than the well-being of our daughters? We are ashamed of the wrong things,” says Afrina Chowdhury, Gender Specialist, The WorldFish Centre.

Social norms in Bangladesh have been in a state of flux in recent decades as a larger number of women are infiltrating male dominated spaces in the workforce, and other public arenas, weakening the patriarchal institutions and practices that restrict the mobility of women. Education and financial security allow girls to contribute to the household, granting them more say in decisions. Class position also grants one a louder voice against social evils. Therefore it is pertinent to examine the group that is most vulnerable to the recent amendments to Child Marriage Restraint Act – girls of the poorer class. “Generally, the poorer the family the more likely the girl is to drop out of school and the younger she will get married,” writes Simeen Mahmud.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Many studies show, young married girls are more likely to drop out of school and so will not have the opportunity to work and earn, says AashaMehreen Amin, Deputy Editor of The Daily Star.

They run the risk of birth complications, (which could result in them dying) and then give birth to underweight babies who will grow up stunted and underdeveloped. They will also be more vulnerable to cruel husbands and in-laws. These girls will either die of the violence inflicted on them or will be physically and mentally ill for most of their lives making them less productive, unhappy women in, no doubt, unhappy households, says Amin.

“Early marriage causes girls to drop out of education and limits their opportunities for social interaction. Only 45 percent of adolescent girls are enrolled in secondary school and even fewer attend regularly. New brides are expected to work in their husbands’ households and are subject to the same hazards as child domestic workers,” cites a Unicef report.

“This special provision is in no way up to date with the times and stands to be a great risk especially for girl children,” says Fawzia Khondker, a freelance gender consultant.

Now what?

Women’s role in the national development process materialized from the Second Five Year Plan (1980-1985) and the Fourth Five Year Plan (1990-2010). What these plans did were acknowledge the participation of women in development activities and also recognised women as key factors in the national economy.

The plan sought to incorporate women’s contributions in national production, and thereby reduce gender disparity by making them part of the mainstream development process.

This was done through raising female literacy; increasing jobs for women and improving working environment; improving credit facilities, and health through improved nutrition and availability of healthcare. This change in approach would not have been brought about without the concerted efforts of women’s rights activists, NGO initiatives, the government’s own awareness on the position of women in state, and local consultative sub-groups on women in development.

The special provision on the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017 therefore creates a bigger dichotomy between the sexes, and is a major roadblock in gender equity.

As Taj Hashmi, who teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University and is the author of several books, including his latest, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan (Sage, 2014), argues in his seminal piece in The Daily Star “This Act, in short, grossly violates the Constitution, which guarantees equal rights and opportunities for all Bangladeshis irrespective of their ethnicity, socio-economic position, gender, and belief systems.”

He further added, “So far only a handful of people, mostly women representing women, human rights, and development organisations, have held public rallies in Dhaka protesting enactment of the Child Marriage Restraint Act-2017. As if it's only a women's issue, having nothing to do with human rights, equal opportunity, and human dignity in Bangladesh! Unless cross sections of the people, politicians, intellectuals, professionals and others organise mass protests and mobilise public opinion against the Act — paradoxically named as “Child Marriage Restraint Act”— it would further erode the vestiges of human rights and civility in the country.”


Published Date: Mar 15, 2017 04:51 pm | Updated Date: Mar 15, 2017 04:52 pm

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