Human Rights Watch has urged the Parliament of Bangladesh to stop the proposed law which includes a special provision legalising marriage for underage girls.
"The move is a major step backwards on child marriage in Bangladesh," said HRW’s Women Rights Division Senior Researcher Heather Barr, in a statement released on Friday.
On November 24, the cabinet approved a draft of the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2016 which will consider anyone under 18 years of age to be a child.
Many rights groups, however, have voiced concerns over a provision of the proposed law which will allow child marriage in special cases - such as if a girl becomes pregnant accidentally or illegally - in order to "protect her honour".
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In the statement, Heather Barr criticised Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for going back on a promise made in 2014 to end all marriage before the age of 18 by 2041 and finalise a national action plan on how to end child marriage under age 15 by 2021.
“Although Bangladesh’s law on child marriage was widely ignored, the existence of a strict law meant the focus was on enforcement," Barr said. "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.
“It is also difficult to know just what is meant by ‘unlawful pregnancy’.”
The HRW researcher said the law could lead to a situation where rape victim are forced to marry their rapist.
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“The next step is for the draft law to go to the parliament, expected in the coming weeks. The outcry against the draft law in the Bangladesh press and civil society has been fierce. Bangladesh’s parliamentarians now have a crucial chance to stand up for girls, where the prime minister has failed to do so,” Barr added in the statement.
Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, and the highest rate in Asia. Over half (52%) of Bangladeshi girls get married before the age of 18 and almost one-fifth (18%) are married before they turn 15.