On February 14, The Daily Star ran an article on Swarnali, a girl who gave birth in the middle of her SSC examination in Sharishabari -- and then went back to sit for her exams. While the high praise for an under-age mother might lead some to think that this is advocating child-marriage, one cannot help but admire the determination of a young girl to carry on with her education.
According to the 2014 Bangladesh Demographic Health Survey, 31% of adolescent girls in Bangladesh fell pregnant that year -- while 62% of the births were delivered not in a health facility, but at home.
Imagine a 15-year-old experiencing labour pains and giving birth at home. Bangladesh has one of the world’s highest rates of child marriage. One might argue that one’s mother or grandmother became a parent at a very early age and went on to give birth to several children without any problems -- but how are we to know the mental and physical problems they experienced giving birth so young?
Furthermore, as society has developed, so have laws, medicine, and the understanding of the harmful physical and mental effects of child marriage. Why should we willingly accept something that can potentially do so much harm?
The reasons for the high rate of child marriage in Bangladesh are mainly social and economic in nature. Parents are driven by the urge to ensure the safety of their daughter and to protect them from harm. In some cases, families living in areas which are prone to natural disasters will marry off their under-age daughter to a family living in another area as soon as they can afford to do so.
It is ironic that child marriage occurs due to fears of safety and security. This is because domestic violence in Bangladesh usually comes down to money issues -- specifically, dowry.
Imagine a girl below the age of 18 is married. The parents provide the dowry that is asked for. Some make an “incomplete” handover of cash, some pay the full amount. Regardless, the young bride is constantly mentally and physically abused for more money. Where are the safety and security her parents were looking for when they married her off?
At this point in time, the minimum legal age for marriage is 18 years for a woman and 21 for a man, according to the Child Marriage Prohibition Act.
When it was decided that this law needed brushing up and modification, in order to safeguard young women and girls from potential hazards, were steps taken to increase the age of marriage? Was the penalty increased to deter eager parents?
No. The new Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017 keeps the minimum age of marriage for girls at 18, but has added a provision that girls below 18 could also be married off if the parents think it necessary under “special circumstances,” with the involvement of the court. And no minimum age has been set for this “special” segment of the law.
The “special cases” are if a girl becomes pregnant out of wedlock, or if it becomes necessary to marry her off to protect her “honour.” This will only encourage those who enjoy sexually harassing and assaulting young women and girls.
Bangladesh is a party to the Child Rights Convention -- the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. Bangladesh is also a member of the South Asia Initiative to End Violence against Children.
In Sri Lanka, the minimum age for a girl is 18, as in Bhutan and India. India had amended the law to make the penalties for child marriage harsher. In Pakistan, the Sindh Assembly passed a law making the minimum age for marriage of a girl 18.
Incidentally, on February 14, while Swarnali was experiencing her first 24 hours of motherhood, in faraway Malawi -- where child marriage is rampant -- the parliament had unanimously voted for a constitutional amendment to raise the marriage age from 15 to 18 years.
Coming back to our own laws, allowing for even younger girls to be married off under “special circumstances” only legalises what civil society and even relevant government ministries have been fighting against.
Unfortunately, our society is not sympathetic to rape victims
This law is akin to washing our hands of young girls who are potential victims of under-age pregnancies and domestic violence. Instead, we should be looking at the causes driving this need and eradicating the factors that contribute to child marriages -- mainly poverty, insecurity, and natural disasters.
Among all these factors, the issue of insecurity is the one that could have been tackled a very long time ago.As early as the 1980s, we had a law specifically for the punishment of crimes against women. This was repealed after the introduction of the Nari-O-Shishu Nirjaton Domon Ain (Suppression of Repression against Women and Children Act), that has been in effect since 2000.
However, poor implementation of this, and various social issues such as the “shame” of rape, the inability to afford legal assistance and the other costs involved, pressure from local influential people, and even law enforcement, on the victim’s family to stop seeking justice, have all weakened the backbone of our justice system and encouraged the perpetration of violence.
A sad drop in morals has permeated society for various reasons. Otherwise, how do perpetrators carry out such acts with the confidence that “they can get away with it?”
The new child marriage law, in fact, legitimises child marriage -- and given the high levels of rape and sexual abuse prevalent in Bangladesh, only time will tell how the special provision is utilised. Will the perpetrator of rape be punished for his offence under the Nari o Shishu Nirjaton Domon Ain, or will he be forgiven and marry his shishu-bride?
Unfortunately, our society is not sympathetic to rape victims, and the rapist will then become her “saviour.” What will be the psychological effect of this on the victim of the rape?
Child marriage in Bangladesh will continue unless there is something effective done to tackle the reasons for its persistence. Legalising under-age marriages seems like a lazy way out of a situation that can potentially lead to loss of life.
Once an under-age girl is married, without proof of “special circumstances,” even if the perpetrators are punished, it does not dissolve the union. She is still married. In such situations, we can at least empower the under-age wives. We can educate, encourage, and empower these families to help them continue their education and wait till they are adults before bearing children.
Women of Bangladesh have to overcome many mental and physical obstacles in public and private life. They knowingly face violence and abuse on a daily basis, knowing that they cannot return to their parents’ house because they are are too poor to feed them.
It is not impossible to control and then reduce violence against women and child marriages in Bangladesh, but what seems to be impossible is generating the will to do so.
Saira Rahman Khan teaches law at BRAC University.