Brisbane, December 26, 2016 (Alochonaa):Early Marriage has become one of the most discussed issues in Bangladesh after recent decisions on ‘girl’s marriage age’ taken by the government and the series of criticism mounted by the women and child rights activists. Before going to the debate I would like to put light on the history and legal issues of Early Marriage as well as causes and consequences of it.
Historically, early marriage has been a global and historical phenomenon for millennia. In ancient Israel, it was common for girls to be betrothed at or before puberty. From Niger and Saudi Arabia to Great Britain, India and Taiwan, child betrothals were used to end tribal conflicts and forge interfamily alliances. In fact, it was the religion that formally set a minimum age requirement for marriage. Abrahamic traditions required a girl to at least reach puberty before she could be married off. The Vedas prescribed waiting three additional years. The minimum marriageable age for a girl was agreed to be 14 years according to the 1983 Code of Cannon Law. However, norms regarding child marriage have changed over the yearsdue to many movements.
In Bangladesh, currently, the minimum legal age for marriage is 18 for women as stated in the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929. In November 2016, the Cabinet said it would pass the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2016 during Parliament’s winter session. The new Act is said to include a special provision allowing child marriage in “special cases”, such as if a girl becomes pregnant “accidentally” or “illegally”, or where a marriage would protect her ‘honour’. There are fears that such a provision would legitimize statutory rape and encourage the practice of child marriage.
Causes and realities of early marriage Bangladesh are complex to explain. Researchers claim that natural disasters, poverty, sexual harassment of unmarried girls and failure by police to stem this harassment are leading to prompt child marriage. In addition, social pressures and traditions, informal start to gossiping behind the unmarried girls, complex social milieu comprised of honour codes, misperceptions, archaic attitudes and misinformation are the main reasons for early marriage.
Moreover, religious ideologies, successive inaction by the government and complicity by local officials in allowing child marriage are responsible for this. Pathetically, there are cases where local government officials issue forged birth certificates showing girls’ ages as over 18, in return of bribes worth as little as US$1.30. There are cases, even when the local officials prevent marriages, families find it easy to hold the marriage in a different jurisdiction. Having set up a wider and contextual socio-historical background, let me now review the on-going debate over child marriage.
On the one hand women and child right based NGOs, civil society members, international organizations, and media are protesting the idea of decreasing the minimum marriage age for girls and criticizing the government’s decisions on this.
According to the ICRW, Bangladesh has the fourth-highest rate in the world of child marriage before age 18. Bangladesh has the highest rate of early marriage of girls under the age of 15 in the world, with 29 percent of girls in Bangladesh married before age 15, according to a UNICEF study. Two percent of girls in Bangladesh are married before age 11. These rights based organizations detail the damage that early marriage does to the lives of girls and their families in Bangladesh, including the discontinuation of secondary education, serious health consequences including death as a result of early pregnancy, abandonment, and domestic violence from spouses and in-laws. Therefore, the government proposal to lower the age of marriage for girls on special context sends the opposite message and these organizations fear that this law will reduce the option in regard to access to education for girls while increase social pressure, harassment, and norms of seeking dowry from males during marriage.
On the other hand, Government of Bangladesh is trying to balance between the norms of child rights, international pressure and the harsh realities of the socio-economics in Bangladesh. The GoB is not reducing the age bar, rather age will be kept as it is with more punishments if someone breaks this law, but a special clause will be added for the exceptional cases for ensuring the girl children’s safety if she falls in any exceptional situations. The Prime Minister of Bangladesh supports this by saying “”A law can never be rigid, there must have an alternative in special cases particularly in the case of unexpected pregnancy of any girl under 18. Otherwise, it might be disastrous for the society.”
From my 10 years of field level experiences where I worked with various capacities in the public sector at district level and subdistrict level, I find convincing logic in the decision of the government of incorporating some special clause during child marriage. In most of the laws in the legislation throughout the world, there is a special clause included for special and exceptional cases. We need to acknowledge that we don’t live in an utopian world. The reality might have some peculiar conditions. In the real world of socio-economic conditions, social values, people attitudes and deteriorated law and order situations of Bangladesh, girls sometime may face a strange situation that parents and the girls do not have any alternative expectation but to marry before 18.
However, one should note that this decision might bring some paradoxical situation and contradiction to recent existing policies and development agenda. First, the government is trying to increase girls’ education but this decision is similar to narrowing the window of opportunity. It is also a contradiction with the government’s other initiatives to reduce violence against women. By reducing marriage age we are reinforcing the existing norm of the devaluation of girls. It will not be easier for the government to implement this law/target. Secondly, it is true that in some cases lowering of marriage age for girls is consistent with the socio-economic realities of the country. We all know this as a fact but how that prevents the early marriage of girls that will be a key question. Some people argue by citing the examples of western countries. The socio-economic conditions of Bangladesh and with that of these western countries are not similar. This argument is totally irrelevant, misplaced, and out of context. Thirdly, in reality, a village father does not care about Bangladesh’s commitments at the Girl Summit 2014 or human right movements of the world; he cares about his daughter and his social standing. Integrally linked to this sense of honour are cultural ideas like virginity or purity. Consequently, sexual harassment and unwanted pregnancies are threats to a man’s / family’s social standing. That it also limits a girl’s life choices is almost secondary in consideration. Then the desire for child rights protection is facing challenges. Fourthly, Bangladesh needs to be strict in achievingi) reduction in teen pregnancy, maternal mortality and improvement of women’s health, (ii) improvement in girls’ opportunities to get at least some functional education, (iii) improvement of women’s position in the family, (iv) empowerment of women and girls in making decisions about their own lives etc. But ironically, this decision of special clause may affect these targets negatively.
Bangladesh has achieved gender parity in primary and secondary school enrollment. Maternal mortality declined by 40 percent between 2001 and 2010. Bangladesh is also focused on achieving the SDG targets, like elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Bangladesh’s success in achieving some development goals begs the question of why the country’s rate of early marriage remains so high, among the worst in the world.
Even when the law was with ‘18 year as marriage’ without the special clause, it did not change the reality. Abandoning the practice of early marriage is not the matter of state or law. Rather real questions remain in social norms and economic equality. Why do so many people flout this law is still a mystery. It can be said that either the people don’t understand the law, or the law doesn’t understand the people. And the hard truth is that the searching of gaps in the law is common among Bangladeshi local elites. What we need is to keep eyes open as the watchdog so that any abuse of this special clause does not happen in the future practices.
*Shafiqul Islam, PhD Candidate, Griffith University, Australia, Master of International studies, Kobe University, Japan, BBA and MBA from Dhaka University, has been working with various capacities in the public sector of Bangladesh since last 10 years.
**is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at alochonaa@