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Dhaka Tribune

Child marriage in Bangladesh: A persistent legal challenge

Despite the pitfalls, Bangladesh is striving towards the mitigation of child marriage

Update : 22 Jan 2024, 10:01 AM

According to recent statistics by UNICEF Bangladesh, it is accommodating approximately 56.9 million children among its massive 169.8 million total population; among them, children under five years of age are 16.3m, and school going children consist of 37.6m. Among this enormous number of child populations, a staggering number of children are falling prey to the vicious cycle of child marriage. 

As per UNICEF’s data, approximately 38m women and girls were married before the age of 18, among whom 15.5%, or 13m, were married before the tender age of 15 years. Among these numerical data, a staggering 24% of girls conceived babies. These alarming statistics have eventually given Bangladesh the 8th position worldwide in terms of the prevalence of child marriage, which, according to UNICEF’s projection, is the highest in Asia.

Child marriage nowadays is considered a denigrating social dilemma. The underlying causes that contributed to the proliferation of this issue can be manifold and most of those causes can be ameliorated through widespread dissemination, mass awareness, and social welfare initiatives. 

According to Unicef’s regional child marriage report published in 2020, it was manifested that the rudimentary causes underneath the façade of child marriage are dwellers of rural Bangladesh who lead a miserable life due to extreme poverty. So, poverty can be cited as one of the key denominators behind the child marriage crisis. 

Additionally, girl children are still considered by rural parents a burden on their shoulders, and due to this orthodox and superstitious conception, most rural parents are compelled to marry their girl child at an early age. Another alarming fact closely intertwined with the previous cause of child marriage is that most girl brides seldom receive primary education. Lack of education and knowledge is also contributing to child marriage. If young girls knew their rights, they would have the voice and knowledge to abstain from this social stigma. According to Unicef’s 2020 report, education attainment in rural districts gave more girls the right to deny early marriage. 

Moreover, it is evident that the child brides are encountering numerous human rights issues. According to UNICEF's report, child brides have an increased tendency to be victims of domestic violence. Additionally, the child brides are more likely to drop out of school soon after the marriage, thus infringing on the child bride’s right to education. So, the human rights scenario for child brides is constantly dwindling.

Since child marriage involves children, child rights, and, more prominently, human rights, the total amelioration of child marriage has been a primary agenda for various international organizations. Moreover, many internationally recognized instruments have been compiled for giving due recognition to the rights of children, most pertinently the reduction of child marriage. Bangladesh is a signatory state to a manifold of such treaties and conventions.

One such international instrument is the UN Convention on Consent to Marriage, the Minimum Age for Marriage, and the Registration of Marriage. According to this convention, the member states are required to ensure that the minimum age for marriage is implemented and that the consent of the parties is a pre-requisite for marriage. Bangladesh also ratified key human rights instruments that correspond to the safeguarding of the rights of children on a broader scale. 

Bangladesh ratified one of the fundamental human rights conventions known as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1985. This convention clearly lays down that child marriage has no legal consequences (Article 16, paragraph 2).  

The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child 1999, Article 2, lays down that the betrothal of girls and boys requires a stringent legislative framework and other requisite measures to be adopted to protect their rights. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) of 1989 has implicitly remarked on abolishing denigrating practices that are harmful to the health of children. And when it comes to identifying denigrating practices, it contains the culture of child marriage.

In order to circumscribe the measures to mitigate forced and early marriage of children, the 26th session of the Human Rights Council’s Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, published on April 2, 2014, has illustrated several ways out of the vicious cycle of child marriage. 

First and foremost, civil and criminal remedial measures against the practices of forced child marriage. For instance, the United Kingdom enacted the “Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007." This act provided specific remedial measures to suppress forced marriage of young children, which consisted of assisting the victims of child marriage by availing them of the Forced Marriage Protection Order (FMPO). Such an order can be issued by the victimized individual or by a third party acting on their behalf. The specialty of this order is to bring the victims of the forced marriage under protective custody. Additionally, the parliament of UK is considering incriminating the perpetrators of forced child marriage 

Likewise, the Australian Parliament has adopted the Slavery Act 2013 pertaining to reducing the adverse impact of forced child marriage, akin to the mandates of international law to promulgate a legislative framework for the suppression of child marriage. Australia considers child marriage a serious form of exploitation and an aggravated offense, and it has prescribed four to seven years of rigorous incarceration for the commission of such offenses. 

Considering the legislative practices applicable to the Indian jurisdiction, the procedure seems identical. India has promulgated “The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006.”. This act is particularly unique on various grounds. For instance, in accordance with Section 3(1) of the Act, any incidents of child marriage shall be voidable or, in some incidental cases, totally void at the option of the contracting parties. Here, voidable means such a marriage has no legal consequences. 

Moreover, another salient feature of this act is the inclusion and creation of public servants known as “Child Marriage Prohibition Officers,” who would monitor territorial cases pertaining to incidents of forceful child marriage. Additionally, this act included remedial measures through the district court and enforcing injunctive relief for the inflicted child. This act also has punitive measures ranging from two to four years allotted for any adult male who marries an underage girl.

Now, confining our attention to our legal system, our government has legislated the “Child Marriage Restraint Act (CMRA) 2017”.  Section 2(3) of the act has a prescribed minimum age for marriage between males and females, which is 21 for males and 18 for females. The Child Marriage Restraint Rules 2018 mandate the creation of child marriage prevention committees.

Sections 7, 8, and 9 of the act have specific punitive measures for the commission of child marriage, but despite the inclusion of penal provisions, the act has no cogent provisions for declaring the validity of marriage. Unlike India, the CMRA lacks provisions for appointing a child marriage prevention officer, and the offenses under the said act are bailable, which further exacerbates the propensity for committing child marriage. 

The most controversial provision of the CMRA that challenges the effectiveness of this act is the insertion of Section 19 as a special provision. This section confers that, based on special circumstances, a marriage between adolescents would be declared valid if such marriage was affirmed by their parents and if it came within the purview of their best interests. So this questionable provision of the CMRA is itself challenging the overall effectiveness of the act. 

In conclusion, we can surmise that, despite the pitfalls, Bangladesh is striving towards the mitigation of child marriage. The adoption of the National Action Plan (NAP) to End Child Marriage (2018-2030). This NAP has specific prevention mechanisms prescribed, which include influencing, supporting, and co-coordinating approaches among policymakers, NGOs, and common citizens whose collective community focused initiative, along with the enactment of a stringent legal framework and amending and updating the current statutory laws, ie, CMRA, would significantly decrease the malevolent impact of child marriage and would help attain Bangladesh's SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) commitments.

Samiur Rahman is Lecturer, Department of Law , Bangladesh University.

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