There is no room for argument that the child marriage epidemic in Bangladesh is a concern for a leader as ambitious as Sheikh Hasina, whose leadership is often praised and seen as pivotal for Bangladesh’s success in gender equality and in the eradication of poverty.
At the July 2014 Girl Summit in London, she made a commitment for ending child marriage by the year 2041. Then, soon after the summit, a proposal to lower the age of marriage to 16 from 18 was made by the government, which was vigorously resisted by the women’s rights campaigners.
Yet again, on November 24 this year, the cabinet chaired by the prime minister passed the draft of the “Child Marriage Resistance Act 2016,” with a clause that child marriage will be allowed in special circumstances to protect honour.
Before proceeding further, let’s go through the statement made by the Cabinet Secretary Safiul Alam, which explains the ignorance in the making of this policy. It was reported by several media outlets, quoting the secretary, that often girls as young as 11 get pregnant in Bangladesh and this provision was created to protect their honour.
Did Mr Alam think about Section 375 of the Penal Code while speaking to the press? According to it, sexual penetration with a girl under 14 is declared to be rape.
Now, if Safiul Alam’s statement made in the official press conference is seen in light of the penal code of Bangladesh, more accurately Section 375, one can successfully argue that this would legitimise rape and pedophilia.
In many countries, such commentary would end the career of an official, but in Bangladesh, high ranking officials operate with an invisible impunity. Accountability does not apply to them, does it?
But that’s not all.
The prime minister herself blasted the NGOs and gender equality campaigners for opposing the special clause, arguing that in many Western countries, marriages of girls as young as 14 or 16 are legally allowed.
However, one can assume that the prime minister is well aware of the reality, given her life-long dedication to the Bangladeshi people, which should also tell her that the realities of Bangladesh and the Western societies are very different.
Contrary to Bangladesh, and thanks to their financial solvency, Western families do not see the girls as a burden; neither is it a societal norm in the West to get the girls married off as soon as they reach puberty. Their safety is assured by the state, and most of all, child marriage is not an epidemic there.
The prime minister needs to identify the common ground with the women’s rights campaigners, who have also dedicated their lives to the Bangladeshi people. And as the leader of a democracy, the prime minister needs to include their voices, address their concerns, and assure them of a decent hearing.
In any functional democracy, when such concerns are raised by women’s rights groups, the parliament forms a special inquiry committee, acquires expert opinions, and puts the findings of the inquiry before the parliament for a robust debate.
It’s better for democracy if the government understands that despite differences, women’s rights campaigners are not enemies, but partners in development.
As for the comparison the US: In the majority of the states in America, the age of consent is between 16 and 17. Being a more sexually liberated society, many states have even lowered it, when the two parties are close in age. But they also have strong statutory rape laws where an adult accused of any type of sexual conduct with a minor will be charged with sexual crime.
Contrary to the US, Bangladesh does not have specific statutory rape provisions of such kind to protect the minors from sexual predators, and the age of consent here is 14.
True, in many American states young children can get married in special circumstances, but it happens only between partners of the same age bracket. On top of that, in many US states, the extreme influence of evangelical Christianity and its opposition to abortion under any circumstances is an issue, which plays a role in such marriages.
In 2014, a study among 6,000 girls in Bangladesh found that 83% of the marriages in Bangladesh were arranged by the parents, of whom 38% were girls married under the age of 15. The study also found that in 72% of cases, the reason for such marriage was that the parents felt it was too good a proposal to refuse.
Bangladesh tops the world ranking in child marriage in case of marriage of girls under the age of 15. Even worse: Some 2% of our girls get married as young as 11.
Can anyone fit this scenario into the American child marriage context?
Here is what does not add up: In Bangladesh, the government, on the one hand, commits to ending child marriage by setting the minimum age for marriage for girls at 18, when the age of consent is set at 14, and then argues it is alright for a girl under the age of 18 to get married in the name of honour.
And in absence of clear provisions of statutory rape, as it is indicated by the cabinet secretary, in the name of honour, an adult can now, it would appear, escape the rape charge if a minor gets pregnant because of sexual intercourse -- let alone the cases when parents abuse the provision.
This notion of “honour” is the reason why only 2% of the total rapes committed in Bangladesh get reported, and now this would get legitimised.
Nur E Emroz Alam Tonoy is a blogger and an online activist.