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 

Harvard Business School’s HBX brings the future of business education to India with online programs

HBX is not only offering courses online, but also connecting students to the power of its network.

The classic design of the physical Harvard Business School (HBS) classroom was once a big innovation – precisely designed teaching amphitheaters laid out for every student to participate from his or her seat with a “pit” in the center of the room from which professors orchestrate discussions analyzing business cases like a symphony lead. When it came to designing the online experience of HBX—the school’s digital learning initiative—HBS faculty worked tirelessly to blend these tenets of the HBS classroom pedagogy with the power of new technology. With real-world problem solving, active learning, and social learning as its foundation, HBX offers immersive and challenging self-paced learning experiences through its interactive online learning platform.

Reimagining digital education, breaking the virtual learning mold

Typically, online courses follow a one-way broadcast mode – lectures are video recorded and reading material is shared – and students learn alone and are individually tested. Moving away from the passive learning model, HBX has developed an online platform that leverages the HBS ‘case-based pedagogy’ and audio-visual and interaction tools to make learning engaging.

HBX courses are rarely taught through theory. Instead, students learn through real-world problem-solving. Students start by grappling with a business problem – with real world data and the complexity in which a business leader would have to make a decision – and learn the theory inductively. Thus even as mathematical theories are applied to business situations, students come away with a greater sense of clarity and perspective, whether it is reading a financial report, understanding why a brand’s approach to a random sample population study may or may not work, or how pricing works.

HBX Platform | Courses offered in the HBX CORe program
HBX Platform | Courses offered in the HBX CORe program

“Learning about concepts through real-life cases was my favorite part of the program. The cases really helped transform abstract concepts into observable situations one could learn from. Furthermore, it really helped me understand how to identify situations in which I could use the tools that HBX equipped me with,” says Anindita Ravikumar, a past HBX participant. India’s premier B-school IIM-Ahmedabad has borrowed the very same pedagogy from Harvard. Learning in this manner is far more engaging, relatable, and memorable.

Most lessons start with a short 2-3 minute video of a manager talking about the business problem at hand. Students are then asked to respond on how they would handle the issue. Questions can be in the form of either a poll or reflections. Everyone’s answers are then visible to the ‘classroom’. In the words of Professor Bharat Anand, Faculty Chair, HBX, “This turns out to be a really important distinction. The answers are being updated in real-time. You can see the distribution of answers, but you can also see what any other individual has answered, which means that you’re not anonymous.” Students have real profiles and get to know their ‘classmates’ and learn from each other.

HBX Interface | Students can view profiles of other students in their cohort
HBX Interface | Students can view profiles of other students in their cohort

Professor Anand also says, “We have what we call the three-minute rule. Roughly every three minutes, you are doing something different on the platform. Everyone is on the edge of their seats. Anyone could be called on to participate at any time. It’s a very lean forward mode of learning”. Students get ‘cold-called’ – a concept borrowed from the classroom – where every now and then individuals will be unexpectedly prompted to answer a question on the platform and their response will be shared with other members of the cohort. It keeps students engaged and encourages preparedness. While HBX courses are self-paced, participants are encouraged to get through a certain amount of content each week, which helps keep the cohort together and enables the social elements of the learning experience.

More than digital learning

The HBS campus experience is valued by alumni not just for the academic experience but also for the diverse network of peers they meet. HBX programs similarly encourage student interactions and opportunities for in-person networking. All HBXers who successfully complete their programs and are awarded a credential or certificate from HBX and Harvard Business School are invited to the annual on-campus HBX ConneXt event to meet peers from around the world, hear from faculty and business executives, and also experience the HBS campus near Cambridge.

HBXers at ConneXt, with Prof. Bharat Anand
HBXers at ConneXt, with Prof. Bharat Anand

Programs offered today

HBX offers a range of programs that appeal to different audiences.

To help college students and recent graduates prepare for the business world, HBX CORe (Credential of Readiness) integrates business essentials such as analytics, economics, and financial accounting. HBX CORe is also great for those interested in an MBA looking to strengthen their application and brush up their skills to be prepared for day one. For working professionals, HBX CORe and additional courses like Disruptive Strategy, Leading with Finance, and Negotiation Mastery, can help deepen understanding of essential business concepts in order to add value to their organizations and advance their careers.

Course durations range from 6 to 17 weeks depending on the program. All interested candidates must submit a free, 10-15 minute application that is reviewed by the HBX admissions team by the deadlines noted on the HBX website.

For more information, please review the HBX website.

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