Marriage map

Bangladesh’s new child marriage law allows minors to marry under 'special circumstances'

The legislation is meant to replace a dated one, but this loophole could have consequences, fear activists.

Bangladesh is a global poster child when it comes to improving women’s status in the developing and the Muslim worlds. It also outranks all of its South Asian neighbours in terms of gender equality.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report has placed Bangladesh above India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka for two consecutive years. In 2016, the country was placed 72nd among 144 countries while India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan were placed 87th, 110th, 100th and 143th respectively.

The country is ahead of India and Pakistan in terms of enrolment in primary and secondary education and has leapfrogged both in immunisation rates and child mortality reduction. Perhaps unexpectedly, it also tops South Asian countries on the political empowerment gender gap.

These achievements are exceptional considering the fact that Bangladesh is poorer than India and Pakistan. But the prevalence of child marriage in the country is a departure from this list of many cases of “positive deviance” in gender and social statistics.

A significant blemish

According to UNICEF, Bangladesh has the highest rate of marriage in the world among girls under 15. And it is ranked eighth in terms of marriage under the age of 18.

The country is suffering from a child bride “epidemic” in which one in three girls is married below the age of 18. By contrast, a much smaller proportion of girls in Pakistan marry young, although the 2016 WEF report ranked Pakistan second to last in the world for gender inequality.

At the July 2014 Girl Summit in London, the Bangladesh government pledged to revise the country’s Child Marriage Restraint Act. Its aim was to end marriage of girls under the age of 15 by 2021.

The government has just passed a bill penalising early marriages. But it includes a controversial clause saying “under special circumstances” and with the consent of both the court and parents, girls under 18 may be married with no penalties for those involved.

Bangladesh is ahead of India and Pakistan in terms of girls’ enrolment in primary and secondary education. Andrew Biraj/Reuters
Bangladesh is ahead of India and Pakistan in terms of girls’ enrolment in primary and secondary education. Andrew Biraj/Reuters

Under the previous law, marriage under the age of 18 was legal for the people marrying because the age of marriage is governed by personal laws based on religion, including both Islam and Hinduism. But it penalised acts related to the marriage of a girl under 18, including facilitating or arranging the marriage, and registering or contracting it.

The new law takes the same approach. But the previous law provided no exceptions in terms of when acts relating to child marriage was an offence. Because the new law does this, it is being seen as a step in the wrong direction.

The chief of the parliamentary standing committee on women and children’s affairs, Rebeka Momin, has defended the move, saying that keeping the special provision would not increase child marriage. She stressed that “there was no alternative to keeping the special provision considering the socio-economic reality, especially in rural areas.”

The amendment grants more powers to the parents of girls under 18. It is worrying because it not only overrides public opinion but objections raised by experts on children’s health and rights. And it reduces the deterrent effect of the previous law.

Child marriage is driven by a number of factors such as low rates of education for girls, high fertility rate, the low social status of women, extreme poverty and concern over insecurity. It is no surprise that countries such as India, Mozambique, Malawi, Nigeria, South Sudan and Uganda are global hot spots for child marriage and also belong to the bottom quarter of countries in the WEF’s Global Gender Gap Report.

Bangladesh’s child marriage prevalence is not unique in South Asia either. Nepal also ranks highly, despite being one of the top five climbers over the past decade on the overall global gender gap index and on educational attainment.

Clearly, there is no single solution to the problem. But the exception clause is certainly an oddity.

Bangladesh’s deviation

Most countries have some form of exemption to their legal minimum marriage age. In the United States, for instance, most states set 18 as this minimum. But every US state allows for children younger than 18 to marry, typically with parental consent or judicial approval, under specific circumstances.

In as many as 27 states, laws do not specify an age below which a child cannot marry under any circumstances. But transparent birth and marriage registration systems, gender-inclusive education, a democratic culture and child rights protection agencies at the local level ensure that the legal right to marry before 18 is not abused. These institutional provisions are absent in Bangladesh.

The age of marriage in Bangladesh is governed by personal laws based on religion, including Hinduism. Ponir Hossain/Reuters
The age of marriage in Bangladesh is governed by personal laws based on religion, including Hinduism. Ponir Hossain/Reuters

In contrast to high-income countries, marriage decisions in Bangladesh take place in conditions of extreme poverty and illiteracy. So legal provisions for marriage under the age of 18 risks the possibility of increasing child marriage.

Among developing countries with a high prevalence of child marriage, Bangladesh’s relatively superior rank in several other gender indicators lends it a unique advantage in the battle against the practice. It is much better placed than others to gain from primary prevention strategies that include renegotiating marriage age laws and ensuring that they are uniform across communities, rather than focusing on “marriage busting” approaches.

The controversy about the bill risks drawing policy attention away from primary prevention strategies and harming the fight against child marriage in the country.

Acknowledgement: Sajeda Amin, Senior Associate at Population Council, New York, and Sara Hossain, Honorary Executive Director of the Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, co-authored this article.

M Niaz Asadullah, Professor of Development Economics, University of Malaya and Zaki Wahhaj, Senior Lecturer in Economics, University of Kent.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

When house hunting is as easy as shopping for groceries

The supermarket experience comes to a sector where you least expected it.

The woes of a house hunter in India are many. The dreary process starts with circling classifieds in newspapers and collecting shiny brochures. You flip through the proposed and ready designs that launch a hundred daydreams on the spot. So far so good. But, every house hunter would attest to the soul-crushing experience of checking out a disappointing property.

The kitchen of a 2BHK is carved from the corner of the hall, the 3BHK is a converted 2BHK, the building looks much older than in the pictures…. after months of reading the fine line, and between the lines, you feel like all the diagrams and highlights seem to blur into each other.

After much mental stress, if you do manage to zero in on a decent property, there’s a whole new world of knowledge to be navigated - home loans to be sifted through, taxes to be sorted and a finance degree to be earned for understanding it all.

Do you wish a real estate platform would address all your woes? Like a supermarket, where your every need (and want) is catered to? Imagine all your property choices nicely lined up and arranged with neat labels and offers. Imagine being able to compare all your choices side by side. Imagine viewing verfied listings and knowing what you see is what you get. Imagine having other buyers and experts guiding you along every step while you make one of the most important investments in your life. Imagine...

MagicBricks has made every Indian house hunters’ daydream of a simplified real estate supermarket a reality. Now you have more than a pile of brochures at your disposal as the online real estate marketplace brings you lakhs of choices to your fingertips. Instead of bookmarking pages, you can narrow down your choices by area, budget, house type etc. Just so you aren’t hit by FOMO, you can always add a suburb you’ve been eyeing or an extra bedroom to your filter. But there’s more to a house than just floor space. On MagicBricks, you can check for good schools in the vicinity, a park for evening walks or at least an assured easier commute. Save time and energy by vetting properties based on the specs, pictures and floor plans uploaded and have all your niggling concerns addressed on the users’ forum.

Shortlisted a property? Great! No need to descend down another spiral of anxiety. Get help from reliable experts on MagicBricks on matters of legalities, home loans, investment, property worth etc. You can even avail their astrology and Vastu services to ensure an auspicious start to life in your new home or office. With its entire gamut of offerings, MagicBricks has indeed brought the supermarket experience to real estate in India, as this fun video shows below.

Play

Get started with a simplified experience of buying, renting and selling property on MagicBricks here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of MagicBricks and not by the Scroll editorial team.