Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has said that there is nothing to be worried about the government's new law to prevent child marriage.
In response to a supplementary question of Jatiya Party lawmaker Fakhrul Imam, the premier Wednesday defended the Child Marriage Restrain Act 2016 approved by the cabinet on November 24.
The proposed law has drawn severe criticisms from home and abroad for keeping a provision allowing child marriage in special cases; such as if a girl becomes pregnant accidentally or illegally to protect her "honour" – with approval from a court and agreement between the parents.
"The law has been framed taking the reality of our society into consideration," Hasina said, reports BSS.
Also read- ‘Child Marriage Restraint Act contradicts itself’
She also blasted some NGOs and individuals for raising questions about the special provision. "They are far away from reality," the premier said, adding that many western countries allow marriage of girls at 14 and 16 years.
"A law can never be rigid, there must have an alternative in special cases particularly in case of unexpected pregnancy of any girl under 18. Otherwise, it may be disastrous for the society," she said.
Hasina said that her government had been making relentless efforts to make people aware about child marriage. “In view of this, girls are being encouraged for education and provided with scholarship side by side with creating scope for job.
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“Girls are being given scholarship for higher studies to lessen the burden of education on their guardians so that the girls and their guardians do not become worried for their marriage at early age,” BSS quoted her as saying.
Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, despite a three-decade-old law banning marriage for girls under the age of 18.
In case of violation, the law proposes a maximum penalty of Tk100,000 along with two years’ imprisonment.
According to the law, the court will impose a ban on any marriage if anyone claims it as child marriage. The court might reject the ban also.
If anyone violates the ban, he or she will face six months’ imprisonment and Tk10,000 fine or both as punishment.
If the claim is proved false, punishment is maximum six months’ imprisonment and at least Tk30,000 fine or both.
Minors who marry will face maximum 15 days’ imprisonment or Tk5,000 fine.
Also read- Rights groups continue demands for child marriage bill change
Any adult male or female will face a maximum penalty of Tk100,000 fine along with two years of imprisonment or both if he or she marries any minor.
If parents are found involved in organising child marriage, they will be punished with maximum six months’ imprisonment and at least Tk50,000 fine or both. If the parents are not capable of paying the fine, the jail term will be increased for more three months.
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If a child marriage is registered, the licence of the marriage conductor will be cancelled.
After the law got cabinet nod, women rights activists have been widely critical of the government move as they believe it would fail to address the problem of child marriage.
Sultana Kamal, an adviser to a former caretaker government, said that the act would encourage child marriage. “The provision allowing child marriage in special cases will not help decrease child marriage,” Sultana told a press conference on November 25.
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“The reason given as to protect the honour of a girl child will create special causes for child marriages in spite of preventing it. Loopholes in this act will not protect woman’s rights as human beings.”
Gender expert Fawzia Khondker Eva also stressed that loopholes in the new act would be detrimental to efforts preventing child marriage. “This is a completely contradictory law and will risk the lives of our girl children in the country,” she said.
Dhaka University journalism department teacher Prof Gitiara Nasreen highlighted the dangerous precedent that the approval of such an act may lead to. “If child marriage increases then violence against women will also increase,” she said.
At another programme on November 27, Ranjan Karmaker, executive director of Steps, questioned why the special provision was not a part of the Marriage Register Act because having it in the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2016 gives the wrong message to people and emboldens child sexual molesters.
Also read- Not the right way to stop child marriage
National Human Rights Commission Chairman Kazi Reazul Haque said that the provision would be misused by taking advantage of the loopholes in the Act and suggested they drop the provision entirely.
Senior Deputy Director of Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) Nina Goswami also opposed the special provision.
UNFPA Senior Consultant Shifa Hafiza said that not only would the provision create confusion but increase child marriage rates from 66% to 90%.