New Child Marriage Law in Bangladesh Can Undo Decades of Progress

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A child bride with her newborn daughter (Photo credit: Sam Nasim/Creative Commons)

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.

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6 Responses to “New Child Marriage Law in Bangladesh Can Undo Decades of Progress”

  1. habeebahoguntade Says:

    I really enjoyed reading your post. Unfortunately, child marriage continues to be prevalent in several countries. It seems that this new act that was adopted can be easily abused once people come up with their “special circumstance”. Although child marriage has serious negative effects like you mentioned, I think is very important to understand people’s reasons behind such actions. I believe that early child marriage can be reduced and maybe even eliminated if underlying causes can be understood and mitigated. You mentioned that Local NGOs, and international organizations that specialize in protection of women and girls should be involved in order to address the problem. I agree with you and I would also like to add the need to use a bottom up approach as opposed to telling people to change a concept they might have practices for generations. Those NGOs and international organizations should not only work with policy makers and the government but also work directly with community members which this policy can impact. Hopefully such collaboration to lead to better understanding and reduction of early child marriage.

  2. eschlot1 Says:

    This was a fascinating post to read, especially in light of news and reports about the dissolution of other child marriages in other nations, such Malawi. As you note, the “special circumstance” caveat is a dangerous one and open to interpretation. Unfortunately it would seem that the punishment is also vague, and potentially counter-productive. Is the punishment for the person conducting the marriage, to provide a disincentive to performing child marriages? Is it for the person marrying-off the child, i.e., the parents (in which case the argument would be that it is potentially cheaper to keep the child for the additional years of growth and development than it is to pay the fine)? Or, the counter-productive option, is the punishment to be levied on the person married to the child, in which case imprisonment leaves the child without an adult for guidance and support, or leaves the couple financially crippled?

  3. sbfphc Says:

    The issue of maternal mortality for pregnant adolescents is an important component of child marriage. A recent review article Neal et al. looks at the problem in several countries including Bangladesh (this can be downloaded at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5106816/pdf/12884_2016_Article_1120.pdf). The authors note that, “pregnancy-related conditions are still a major cause of death among adolescent girls and young women, with an estimated 15% of all deaths globally in women aged 10 – 25 years being a result of maternal causes. In addition children of adolescent mothers are more likely to experience adverse outcomes such as perinatal or neonatal death, and their infants are more likely to be born prematurely or have low birth weight. There is some evidence that these disadvantages are particularly concentrated among younger adolescents, but others suggest the risk persists through to older adolescence.”

  4. rsdoshi Says:

    Man, that 2017 law is confusing. Special cases, but a harsher punishment seems contradictory, if anything. India is pretty similar, with child marriages happening more often in remote villages, where government influence (and urban influence) is significantly less; that being said, you’ll also see it in urban slums with, as you pointed out, the attempt to provide better circumstances for children or to increase stability. However, (as you, again, pointed out), this tends to mean even less education for the girls, limiting their options and the ability to get out of what is a vicious cycle.

    I’m very curious as to why there was an age differential for women and men for age of marriage. I have no insight on this, and would appreciate any!

  5. asmajhu Says:

    Interesting post! I enjoyed reading your post. In fact, this scenario I have seen in my village a lot. In Bangladesh girl’s marriage comes too early and damage them throughout their life. Bangladeshi girls are enduring oppression and deprivation in their own family. I would say, Social stigma/belief whether parents are being capable or not, girls are burden for them, their thoughts “girls won’t take care their parents when they get old whereas boys do”; So, they think educating women are wasting of money. However, Gov. of Bangladesh has made education free (from primary level to Associate level) for women. In addition, some of parents/girl’s belief that if a girl is 20 years or more and unmarried then she and her family sexually and mentally harassed by their relative and neighbor. Most of the underage (<18) marriage are not registered in the rural area, marriage is being done by local Imam (religious specialist). In recent, many of parents make false birth certificate with age 18 years of their girls for marriage registration, so then it won’t be punishable by legally. In addition, eve-teasing by local terror, Poverty, repeated natural disaster is another important reason for early marriage. New law “special cases” or 'greater good' – leaving the law open to interpretation, or to legitimize statutory rape. Which is thought to protect the "honor" of girls who have become pregnant without marriage/ by rape in early age. However, marriage is not the best way to protect adolescent girls and where exposes them to greater harm. The Government has also begun developing under the leadership of ministry of Women and children Affairs, a National Action plan to eliminate children Marriage 2015-2021. However, progress on adopting and implementing the plan has stalled in the face of backlash against recent regressive legal proposals.

  6. via New Child Marriage Law in Bangladesh Can Undo Decades of Progress — SBFPHC Policy Advocacy – Inspire For A Better Life Says:

    […] via New Child Marriage Law in Bangladesh Can Undo Decades of Progress — SBFPHC Policy Advocacy […]

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