Bangladesh has achieved considerable advancement in fulfilling the rights of its children. It has made remarkable progress in reducing child and maternal mortality, immunising more children, increasing the numbers of children enrolled in school, gender parity in primary and secondary school enrollment etc.
The country also adopted some noteworthy policy and legal changes detrimental to the rights of the children.
But still, it has multi-dimensional challenges in ensuring a safe environment where every child can flourish.
Among the children in Bangladesh, girls are the most neglected and marginalised. They face inequality and discrimination from the moment they are born. They are deprived of basic rights, including the right to education, nutrition, legal help, medical care, and other fundamental freedoms.
They are also more prone to sexual violence. The increasing rate of child rape has become an issue of major concern. In total, 976 children were reportedly raped during the last four years in Bangladesh. Among them, 325 children were raped from January to September of the current year.
The country has also observed frightening incidents where girls were brutally stabbed, killed, or injured. Girls have also committed suicide after being raped, sexually harassed, or beaten.
The perpetrators go unpunished in many cases, and the long delay in trial of such cases appears to be the main reason for recurrence of this violence.
According to a report, 22,386 women and children have received treatment from the One Stop Crisis Centres (started in 2001) of 10 government hospitals for rape and other forms of violence till 2015. Among them, one-third are children, and 80% of them were raped and others were being tortured as domestic workers. 5,003 cases were filed; there have been 820 verdicts, and only 101 perpetrators punished. This means that the rate of completing trials is 3.66%, and only 0.45% of perpetrators were brought to justice.
Bangladesh has the fourth highest rate of child marriage in the world (highest in South Asia) and the highest rate of marriage involving girls under 15. 65% of girls are married before the age of 18 and 29% by the age of 15. 2% of girls in Bangladesh are married before 11.
Child marriage is an issue that camouflages many things. Instead of ensuring security for girls, it creates many problems that affect communities, families, societies, and has adverse impacts on health and education, ie health complexities during pregnancy, maternal and neonatal mortality, undernourishment, high rate of schools drop-out, domestic violence.
The Violence against Women (VAW) Survey 2015 by BBS has found that around 80.2% of married women are abused by their husbands at least once in a lifetime. The forms of violence include physical, sexual, economic, and emotional. The survey also indicated that women aged between 15 and 34 are under the greatest threat. It makes it difficult for children who are married at their early ages to live a normal life.
Child marriage has been illegal in Bangladesh since 1929, and the minimum age of marriage has been set at 18 for women and 21 for men since the 1980s. Instead of moving forward with a strong law involving stringent punishment to tackle the distressing scenario, the country has now added a special provision on the Child Marriage Restraint Act, raising serious concerns amongst right activists. The “special provision” of the proposed law will allow marriages of girls below 18 under “special circumstances.”
Among the children in Bangladesh, girls are the most neglected and marginalised. They face inequality and discrimination from the moment they are born. They are deprived of basic rights, including the right to education, nutrition, legal help, and medical care
In the latest version of the law, age of marriage is not specified. Although in the constitution, via the Children’s Act 2013 and the Majority Act 1875, consent and voice are linked to the age of adulthood which is set at 18 years of age whereas as per the special provision, a minor girl can be married.
There is an argument that the special provision has been added to the law considering the “best interest of children” principle, but in reality, the provision is greatly against the principle on all grounds.
Among other reasoning, elopement and pregnancy outside of marriage are cited as major reasons for inserting such a provision.
Although, according to a sample household survey, published by Manusher Jonno Foundation in September 2015, only 1.5% child marriages in Bangladesh were found to have taken place as a result of premarital physical relations or elopement.
It also needs to be mentioned that these concerns are well-addressed in the Children Act 2013 and Draft Rules and thus, effective implementation of Children Act 2013 can protect children experiencing such situations.
Another reason is the security of the girls in society. Most parents think that marriage is the ultimate solution to avoid such threats. There are many issues such as lack of social awareness, absence of a child protection system, sluggish and inadequate response of law enforcement agencies, ineffective implementation of related laws, slow judicial procedure, among many others.
These need to be addressed first to ensure a secure and enabling society for girls. Such a provision on marriage cannot protect girls from such circumstances. Rather, this will affect their rights to explore their potential and to lead life as a dignified human being.
In November 2015, the UNCRC Committee on the rights of the child expressed their concerns regarding the clause. The CEDAW committee also recommended that they take immediate measures to end the harmful practices of child marriage by addressing the root causes, raising awareness among parents, teachers, community, and religious leaders about the negative effects of child marriage on the health and well-being of girls, holding those responsible to account and by retaining the legal minimum age of marriage for girls at 18 years without any exceptions.
Bangladesh is also committed to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Elimination of gender-based violence and violence against children is central to the realisation of most SDGs.
We can say without any doubt that this will have adverse effects on the progress that the country has achieved regarding the rights of the girl children.
Tamanna Hoq Riti and Rasheda Akter are human rights activists.