Bangladesh’s parliament on Monday passed a bill that sets the minimum age for women to marry at 18, but allows for younger brides under special circumstances.
Lawmakers moved to adopt the Child Marriage Restraint Bill of 2017, which replaces the British-era Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929. The new law sets the minimum age for marriage at 18 for women and 21 for men.
“I think ‘yes’ wins, so the Child Marriage Restraint Bill, 2017, has been passed in the Sangsad (Parliament),” Speaker Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury ruled after calling for a voice vote and listening to a chorus of yes from MPs.
Abul Hossain, a deputy secretary at the Department of Women and Children’s Affairs, which prepared the bill, told BenarNews in December that the exception for special circumstances was intended to protect unmarried girls who get pregnant.
‘People will misuse it’
Rights activists, however, opposed the bill because of its exception clause, stating it would likely fail to reduce the child-marriage rate.
Bangladesh has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world – 52 percent of girls marry before age 18 and 18 percent marry before age 15, according to Human Rights Watch. A 2014 survey by the national Department of Health found that 40 percent of females between the ages of 15 and 49 would have preferred marrying later than they did.
“We will challenge the law in the court. This is because it conflicts with the existing Children Act and Muslim marriage law. These two laws set the marriage age (for girls) at 18 years. But this law allows marriage under 18 years on special circumstances,” Salma Ali, executive director of Bangladesh Women Lawyer’s Association, told BenarNews on Monday.
She said she expected the new law to increase the rate of child marriage in Bangladesh.
“People will misuse it. The rate of marital rape will increase and result in massive violation of human rights of these girls,” Ali said.
Fakhrul Imam, an MP with the Jatiya Party, which is part of Bangladesh’s ruling coalition, had proposed specifying details of the special provision because of fears that some could take advantage of the law.
“It said that the special provision is for humanitarian grounds. There should be clear (guidelines) on this. Otherwise, it can be misused,” Imam told parliament.
For instance, he said, an older man can woo a girl and get her pregnant.
“In that case, the man can take advantage of the special provision,” Imam said.
Responding to Imam, State Minister for Women and Children Affairs Begum Meher Afroze told lawmakers that those with ulterior motives could not use the law to their advantage.
“In case of any unwanted incidents, the guardians must give consent and the court must approve. Without court approval, no one can arrange marriage (younger than 18 for girls and 21 for boys),” she said. “We have kept the special provision to protect girls.”
She said the new law was needed to stop child brides.
“Child marriage is a clear violation of human rights,” Afroze said. “There must be an updated law to stop child marriage. People know about the bad side of child marriage, but they do not stop it.”
Mizanur Rahman, a former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, challenged Afroze’s assertion, telling BenarNews that the government must protect girls younger than 18.
“This is a reality that we are prone to break the law instead of abiding by it. So, this special provision would make the law futile,” Rahman said. “The state cannot shrug off its duty by enacting a law which will allow the guardians to settle marriage of their adolescent girls for protection.”