Rights groups are voicing opposition to a bill soon to be introduced in Bangladesh’s parliament that would allow marriage for girls younger than 18 under "special circumstances."
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s cabinet unanimously approved the Child Marriage Prevention Bill of 2016 on Nov. 24, and it is likely to be introduced in parliament this month, Atiur Rahman Atik, a ruling Awami League party whip in parliament, told BenarNews.
The new law would preserve 18 as the legal marriage age for girls and 21 for boys while permitting a court or guardian to authorize marriage for a girl under 18 in exceptional circumstances.
“This is a major step backward,” Heather Barr, a researcher for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), was quoted as saying in a statement issued by the group on Thursday.
“Weakening the law is a setback for the fight against child marriage and sends a message to parents across the country that the government thinks child marriage is acceptable in at least some situations,” she said.
“It is also difficult to know just what is meant by ‘unlawful pregnancy’. It suggests the law could lead to a situation where girls who have been raped are forced to marry their rapist,” she said in her statement.
International Affairs Advisor to the Prime Minister Gowher Rizvi told BenarNews on Friday that the article was included in the law for only a few exceptional cases.
“We will make sure that no one can abuse this article,” he said.
“Child marriage drives a child towards uncertainty and a cruel future. It blocks her mental growth and also creates a barrier for her future development. Child marriage is basically a process of hijacking childhood,” he said.
Married at 14
Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, according to HRW: 52 percent of girls marry before age 18, and 18 percent marry before age 15.
Rahela Begum, 35, a domestic worker living in a shanty in Pallabi in Dhaka, told BenarNews that she married at the age of 14.
“My first son died of malnutrition three months after his birth when I was only 15. Now I am a grandmother as we got our first daughter married at the age of 16,” Begum told BenarNews.
“I cannot look at my first daughter. She looks like a 40-year-old woman at the age of 17. If she was not married, she would be like my second daughter who is pretty and healthy,” she said.
In November, The Lancet medical journal reported that 60 percent of the world’s 5.9 million children dying before the age of 5 were concentrated in 10 Asian and African countries – including Bangladesh, India, and Indonesia.
In 2014, Hasina promised to end child marriage under age 15 by 2021 and all child marriages by 2041, while pledging tougher punishments.
“Two years later, there is no national action plan, and while the draft law does set tougher penalties – including, in another wrongheaded move, a penalty of 15 days imprisonment and a 5,000 taka fine (U.S. $63) for children who marry – it also weakens existing law by making some child marriages legal,” Barr said.
Abul Hossain, a deputy secretary at the government’s department of women and children affairs, which prepared the draft law, told BenarNews that the exception was intended to protect unmarried girls who get pregnant.
“For instance, who will take responsibility of a vulnerable girl with both parents expired? Who will feed her and ensure her security? In such cases, marriage is the best solution. The special provision is for such cases,” he said.
He said the law clearly stipulated that the special provision would be applicable only with prior sanction of the court.
“In addition, given our conservative social structure, nobody would marry a girl with accidental pregnancy. Here marriage is the best solution for the protection of the girl and her entire family,” Hossain said.
Salma Ali, executive director of the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association, who helped draft the bill, told BenarNews that it was “excellent, with a but.”
“All stakeholders from grassroots girls to the prime minister have played parts in formulating the bill. It contains preventive measures against and creates awareness about child marriage. But the ‘but’ is the special provision, which will legalize marriage under 18 years of age,” she said.