Bangaldesh Girls’ Rights Threatened By Child Marriage Legislation

On Monday, February 27, 2017, the Bangladesh parliament approved a law that will allow girls under the age of 18 to marry under “special circumstances” if parents or guardians deem it in their “best interests.” Children’s rights charities and organizations fear that the law is open to abuse since it sets no minimum age for when these special circumstances can apply, nor does it give an exact definition of what “best interests” could mean.

Bangladesh already has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world. For instance, a 2016 UNICEF report shows that 52% of girls in Bangladesh are married by their 18th birthday while 18% are married by the age of 15, and there are fears that the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017 will cause these figures to rise. Girls Not Brides, a global coalition of more than 650 charities, has described the provision as an “alarming step back” for the country, which has taken steps to reduce child marriage in recent years.

Statements by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina suggest exceptions to Bangladesh’s child marriage legislation would apply in the case of accidental or unlawful pregnancy, or where a marriage would protect an unwed girl’s “honour” and her family’s reputation. But, as Lakshmi Sundaram, Executive Director of Girls Not Brides, affirms, “marriage before 18 does not ensure a pregnant girl’s safety. In reality, it exposes her to the risk of sexual, physical and psychological violence.” As a result of child marriage, campaigners fear that girls face a greater risk of rape, domestic violence, and forced pregnancies. Child brides are also often denied the opportunity to attend school, as well, they are forced to face social isolation and lives of economic dependence as wives and mothers.

The act awaits presidential assent to become law, but this is largely considered a formality and, according to Human Rights Watch senior researcher on women’s rights, Heather Barr, “the focus now must be on containing the damage caused by Bangladesh legalizing child marriage… Nothing can change the fact that this is a destructive law. But carefully drafted regulations can mitigate some of the harm to girls.”

Interpretations of international law say that marriage before the age of 16 should never be permitted under any circumstances: the Bangladesh government should draft regulations, in close consultation with organizations working on children’s rights, to outlaw all marriages before the age of 16. Further, a 2015 Human Rights Watch report found serious gaps in access to information about family planning and access to contraception for young people in Bangladesh. As well, if the government’s goal is to reduce adolescent pregnancy, it should enable and encourage schools to give practical lessons about family planning, facilitate young people’s access to contraception, as well as make abortion legal, safe, and accessible. Heather Barr deems that judges are “now the last line of protection against this law being used to force girls into marriage against their will, or even allow rapists to escape penalty by marrying their victims.” With that said, judges should be trained and required to screen for sexual violence and encouraged to use the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017 rarely and with great caution. The Bangladesh government should quickly adopt regulations to limit the dangers of this legalization of child marriage.