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Bangladesh's new ambiguous child marriage law seems to put 'marriageable age at zero', claim activists

Bangladesh Parliament recently passed the Child Marriage Restraint Act replacing a law dating back to the British colonial period. The new rule keeps the minimum marriageable age for males at 21 and for females at 18 but relaxes the restriction for "special circumstances" — including for girls who elope, are raped or bear children out of wedlock. This controversial child marriage law in Bangladesh which allows children as young as 14 to be married off by their parents was criticised by human rights groups recently.

According to the Dhaka Tribune, state minister for women and children’s affairs Meher Afroze Chumki said that provisions that would come under the "special circumstances" will be finalised on 12 March. The minister said that it would include special permission from the court in the case of the marriage of a minor.

 Bangladeshs new ambiguous child marriage law seems to put marriageable age at zero, claim activists

Representational image. Reuters.

Human rights groups have criticised the law, saying it would jeopardise the gains Bangladesh has made in cutting the levels of child marriage and improving the health of women and children.

"The biggest concern is the law has not set any minimum marriage age for special circumstances, meaning children can be married off at the age of 14-15," said Nur Khan Liton, who represents the Child Rights Advocacy Coalition in Bangladesh.

The coalition, which includes international charities such as Save the Children, Action Aid, national charities and rights groups, said the law could be abused and poses a "risk" to children.

But a ruling party lawmaker who heads parliament's committee on women's and child affairs said it reflects the reality in villages where 70 percent of Bangladesh's 160 million people live.

"We have taken into account the opinion of the Unicef and other experts," said Rebeca Momin, adding that the law also toughens penalties for people violating the minimum marriage age.

She said the special circumstances in the law are aimed at protecting rights and giving dignity to children born out of wedlock.

Despite making impressive gains in many social indicators in recent decades, child marriage remains rampant in the conservative Muslim-majority country.

According to the Independent, activists said "the law effectively sets the marriageable age at zero". Girls Not Brides Bangladesh, in a statement, said that the Act doesn't define what are the special cases. The statement said:

"Evidence globally shows that requiring parental and court consent does not protect girls from child marriage. Girls Not Brides Bangladesh expects that it could be widely abused and effectively mean that Bangladesh has no minimum age of marriage."

The organisation plans to send a memorandum to President of Bangladesh Abdul Hamid urging him not to sign the bill and said that to define the provisions of special cases is prevent "to prevent the new law from being abused and girls being forced to marry as children."

Bangladesh currently has one of the world's highest rates of child marriage. According to figures posted by Unicef on its website, 66 percent of girls are married before the age of 18 and over a third before the age of 15.

The previous child marriage law was widely ignored as parents in many poor districts were found to have married off their daughters at the age of 14.

Soumya Guha writes for Al Jazeera that members of parliament in Bangladesh that letting girls and boys marry in the special cases category is likely to prevent discrimination. He further writes that if a girl "bears a child out of wedlock or is involved in sexual relations at a young age" she might not be able to marry.

He further argues: "The Act, as it currently states, does not require the consent of the girl or boy, in order for a marriage to occur. Her parents and the court may approve if the decision is in the best interest of the under-aged girl or boy. Why not ask the child? Why is his or her consent not important, or even considered?"

Early marriage causes millions of girls to drop out of education. New brides are expected to work in their husbands’ households and are subject to the same hazards as child domestic workers.

"Weakening the law is a setback for the fight against child marriage, and sends a message to parents... that the government thinks child marriage is acceptable in at least some situations," Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch wrote after the cabinet approved the law last December.

(With inputs from AFP)

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Updated Date: Mar 09, 2017 14:21:48 IST