Planned Bangladeshi law to allow child marriage in ‘special cases’ is criticised by charities

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 January, 2017, 2:12pm
UPDATED : Friday, 13 January, 2017, 3:00pm

Bangladesh will be taking a step backwards in efforts to end child marriage if parliament approves changes to a law which would permit girls below 18 to be married in “special cases”, a global alliance of charities said on Thursday.

We have worked with thousands of girls who have been pulled out of education, married off early ... and forced to marry their abusers
Lakshmi Sundaram of Girls Not Brides

The poor South Asian nation has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, despite a three-decade-old law which bans marriage for girls under 18 and men under 21.

Girls Not Brides, a coalition of more than 650 charities, said Bangladesh’s parliament was expected to consider the proposed change to the Child Marriage Restraint Act. This is expected to take place in the next session beginning January 22.

Lakshmi Sundaram, executive director of Girls Not Brides, said the proposed change was “alarming” and a step backwards for the country which has reduced child marriage in recent years.

“We have worked with thousands of girls who have been pulled out of education, married off early, bear the scars of early pregnancy, and forced to marry their abusers. This is simply unacceptable,” Sundaram said in a statement.

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The proposed law was open to abuse since it gave no definition of the term “special cases”, Girls Not Brides said.

Statements made by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina suggest exceptions would apply in instances of accidental pregnancy, or where a marriage would help to protect a girl’s “honour” and the family’s reputation in this largely conservative society.

Bangladeshi officials were not immediately available for comment.

Along with Niger, Guinea, South Sudan, Chad and Burkina Faso, Bangladesh is among the 10 worst countries for child marriage despite moves to strengthen law enforcement and toughen penalties against the crime.

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In 2011, 32.5 per cent of girls aged between 15 and 19 were married compared with 37.5 per cent a decade before, said Girls Not Brides, citing data from Bangladesh’s Bureau of Statistics.

Campaigners say girls face a greater risk of rape, domestic violence and forced pregnancies - which may put their lives in danger - as a result of being married as children.

Child brides are often denied the chance to go to school, are isolated from society and forced into a lifetime of economic dependence as a wife and mother.

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Yet the practice continues largely due to a combination of social acceptance and government inaction, activists say. “Marriage before 18 does not ensure a pregnant girl’s safety,” Sundaram said. “In reality it exposes her to the risk of sexual, physical and psychological violence.”

“The progress Bangladesh has made to address child marriage is impressive, and reflects a real commitment from the highest levels of the government. Now is not the time to regress.”