The “special circumstances” provision of the new Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017, which was passed on Monday by parliament, will now technically make child marriages legal.
While the rest of the world works toward ending child marriage as part of the Sustainable Development Goals set by the UN, Bangladesh is taking two steps back.
A 2016 Unicef study places child marriage in Bangladesh under the age of 15 at 18% and under the age of 18 at 52%. Bordering nations India and Pakistan, however, have ever decreasing numbers with child marriage under 15 rates of 18% and 3% and under 18 rates of 47% and 21%, respectively.
Even Malawi, which has the 11th highest rate of child marriage in the world, under 15 years standing at 9% and under 18 years at 46%, has taken a historic step towards ending child marriage this February by removing a provision allowing children between the ages of 15 and 18 to marry with parental consent from its constitution.
In a polar opposite move, by approving the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017 with its special provision, Bangladesh, which had dropped from the fourth position in 2005 to the eighth position in 2016 in terms of highest global rates of child marriages, will essentially undo this progress.
The special provision proposes that underage females may be married off under “special contexts” as long as it is conducted with the permission of her parents or guardians in conjunction with a magistrate.
Such a marriage will no longer be considered an offence.
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This has raised the ire of rights activists across the country.
Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association (BNWLA) Executive Director Salma Ali said they reject the decision and will challenge the new law in High Court.
Women's rights NGO Nijera Kori Coordinator Khushi Kabir explained: “Our biggest problem has been the non-implementation of the existing laws. The government has been getting away with it for too long. Now the new law will make things worse. Magistrates can be easily coerced by parents into allowing child marriages.”
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She further said the government's reasoning that these special circumstance marriages may reduce the stigma placed on girls who are raped or sexually assaulted was unfounded.
“Marrying a girl off to her rapist or to a hooligan who sexually harasses her will definitely lower her dowry, but it will do nothing to guarantee a better life for her. If anything, her husband will use and abuse her further and throw her out. This will increase the stigma and destroy her life,” she said.
She added: “Basically, it provides a leeway for sexual predators to buy their way in.”
MP Rawshan Ara Mannan and about 40 lawmakers from the Jatiya Party proposed some amendments to the law and asked that public opinion be sought before the bill was passed.
Their concerns were overruled by majority vote.
“The special provision only will encourage and legalise child marriage,” Rawshan told the Dhaka Tribune.
Even the Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged the government to revoke the law.
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HRW Women Rights Division Senior Researcher Heather Barr criticised Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for reneging on her promises to end child marriage.
“This move is a major step backwards in the child marriage fight in Bangladesh,” she added.
The Bangladeshi populace too are worried about the repercussions of this new inclusion to the law.
Halima Akter, a government employee, said: “How can we ensure the safety of our daughters if the law essentially allows rapists to escape punishment by simply marrying their victim.”
Businessman Shobuj Ahmed thinks this new law will encourage more perpetrators to commit violence against underage females.
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“It will encourage child marriage since rural people will now have an excuse to marry off their underage daughters,” he said.
“This is hardly a punishment for the rapists. They will just have to marry the girls they abuse, but that girl's life will be destroyed forever.”
As part of their protest, the BNWLA and other rights groups intend to celebrate Women’s Day this year as a “black day.” Their main agenda will be to raise awareness about child marriages.