Child marriage, usually defined as individuals married or in union before the age of 18, is a common occurrence in many countries globally. Girls who marry before the age of 18 are not as likely to finish secondary education, and more likely to experience domestic violence, die due to complications of pregnancy and childbirth, and produce children with a higher risk of neonatal mortality and/or morbidity when compared to women in their 20’s.
Though often cited as a development success in terms of poverty and mortality reduction, the nation of Bangladesh ranks 5th highest in prevalence of child marriage, with an estimated 52% of women married by age 18. Common drivers of child marriage are poverty, beliefs that marriage will ensure economic and social security for girls, and an emergency response to natural disasters.
Bangladesh’s current law on child marriage prohibits marriage before the age of 18 for women and 21 for men, as dictated by the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929. Despite child marriage being illegal, the law is not often enforced, especially in rural areas of the nation.
In 2017, parliament adopted a new act which would allow child marriage in “special cases”, with no definition as to what constitutes a special case (Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017). Additionally, it gives harsher punishment to individuals who marry children: two years of imprisonment and/or a 100,000-taka fee ($1200). The law has passed the parliamentary phase and is awaiting presidential approval.
Many Bangladeshis and the international community have stated that given the ambiguous wording of the act, such a law would practically authorize child marriages across the country as one could easily justify the marriage being a special circumstance, such as rape cases. International organizations such as the Human Rights Watch have openly spoken against the act, citing it as a “destructive law”.
Other than direct presidential rejection of the law, some have suggested that added regulations to this act are the only way to prevent increased prevalence and acceptance of child marriage in Bangladesh. Though it would be ideal to abolish the ambiguous segment of the act completely, regulations can specify under what rare circumstances child marriage would be allowed in, require consent of the minor her/himself, assign social workers to such cases, and completely ban all marriages before the age of 16. Local NGOs, along with international organizations that specialize in protection of women and girls, can be involved in coordination with local judges and government officials to assign social workers to such “special cases”.
In the coming months, the president of Bangladesh will make a decision on the finality of the law.