The Economist published an article in February 2011 that showed a strong positive correlation between high prevalence of child marriage and low rate of literacy, based on a study done involving 21 countries.
Niger tops the list with 75% child marriages and a meagre 23% literacy rate. The rate for child marriage is only 5% in South Africa, with 98% literacy rate.
While people across the world are raising their voices to reverse this terrible correlation, Bangladesh parliament enacted a law entitled “Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017” on February 27, 2017 with the provision of “special circumstances,” allowing marriages below the permissible age just to pave a way for a journey backward towards the destruction of millions of young girls’ dreams.
More shocking is that no minimum age has been specified for marriages under the provision, which means the scope of abuse is built-in.
The deadliest paradox here is that Bangladesh is one of the first few countries that signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
A study of “Girls not Brides,” a global platform of more than 700 civil society organisations, reveals that Bangladesh has the highest child marriage rates in Asia and the rate of child marriage of girls under 15 is the highest in the world.
A significant proportion of women in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa become brides before the age of 18. The trend is common among the men of these regions as well.
People in countries like Niger, Chad, and Bangladesh very often contravene the law and get their daughters, and sometimes their sons, married before they turn 18.
“Child marriage is an appalling violation of human rights and robs girls of their education, health, and long-term prospects,” said Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director, UNFPA.
It is undeniable that such marriages are posing an insurmountable challenge to many development initiatives in the above mentioned regions.
Sustainable development is the prime goal of these regions.
Child marriage is posing a serious threat to that goal, as the most desired portion of the population is getting excluded by this social vice.
The occurrence of child marriages impedes the actualisation of almost every development goal: Protecting the lives of children, eliminating hunger and poverty, achieving universal primary education, sponsoring gender equality, bettering health and control over population growth.
Moreover, there is a powerful correlation between education and empowerment.
Child marriage robs the future of the young girls and curtails their educational opportunities, eventually resulting in dropouts from schools before they enter tertiary education.
It is the lack of education that bars married women from being empowered both socially and economically.
Child marriage is one of the most malicious indicators of the unequal power relations between men and women.
It often causes subordination of women to men or to other members of the family.
Thus, women lack decision-making power and therefore, they are unable to negotiate with their partners and family members over various matters related to a respectable living.
As shown by various studies, a woman’s education beyond primary school and a family’s health and nutrition are interconnected.
A young mother is physically and emotionally more vulnerable and less knowledgeable than an adult one.
This kind of marriage exposes young girls to the intense risks of early pregnancy and premature birth of babies with serious complications.
Do the punitive measures guarantee the end of child marriage in Bangladesh? No
Reports say that the complications precipitated by early pregnancy and childbirth difficulties cause numerous deaths of young mothers and newborns as well as stillbirths.
A young mother’s psychological health is also affected, as she is confined within the home after marriage, while her peers are enjoying their childhood.
Worst of all, many girls have traumatic experiences as they become victims of intimate partner violence as well as abrupt and often violent introduction to sexual relations. They are invariably powerless to deny the sexual approach by their husbands. On what rational ground, then, the lately enacted law has accommodated “child marriage under special circumstances,” although our lawmakers are regularly coming across atrocious stories of child bride abuse in mass media?
A social shame
What does “child marriage under special circumstances” mean?
The government spokespersons maintain that it allows a Bangladeshi boy or a girl to be a bride or a groom in special cases with consent gained from parents and permission acquired from judicial bodies.
How do the proponents of the act defend their position? Their common response is that the act will protect the adolescent girls and their parents from social embarrassment and personal shame.
What will happen if someone violates the law?
The bill says that the Mobile Court Act 2009 can be exercised along with other provisions of punitive actions.
On receipt of written or verbal complaint, the police station can initiate the legal actions against the accused.
The punishment for breaching the law is maximum six months imprisonment or not more than Tk10,000 fine or both.
Even if a man or a woman marries any child, he or she can face maximum of two years imprisonment or not more than Tk100,000 fine or both.
Section 7 (2) of the law says that any underage boy or girl will endure a detention of 30 days or has to pay Tk50,000 as fine or both for child marriage. Guardians and the marriage registrar are also under different provisions of punitive measures.
Birth certificates, national identity cards, passports, and academic examination certificates will be considered as legal documents for verifying the age of the bride and the groom.
Do the above mentioned punitive measures guarantee the end of child marriage in Bangladesh? No.
Then, should we sit back and watch how the Act is dragging us back to an ancient time?
Overcoming the vice
Essential point we should all be concerned about is to identify the real causes, the ingrained prejudices practiced in our country for child marriage.
To overcome this social vice, pragmatic initiatives should be planned so that we can effectively reverse this detrimental cultural practice.
Of many causes that drive parents and relatives to take such decisions, poverty comes first. To be relieved from the economic burden of feeding, clothing, treating medical problems, and educating their children, parents in poor families think of getting their daughters married as early as possible.
Other most articulated reasons include religious superstition, illiteracy, attitude towards women, traditional custom, fear of losing potential grooms or brides etc. Rethinking is a change-making process.
It often results in more effective and more productive ways of solving our problems.
Although it is always difficult to eradicate any social problem that has deep rooted causes, sensible planning will certainly help reap benefits.
I strongly believe that a systematic promotion of education, awareness of rights and responsibilities, legal practices, attitudinal reformation, and above all, overall enlightenment may bring about praiseworthy change in the current situation of child marriage in our country.
Adopting pragmatic solutions which include providing free primary education, working with faith leaders and community chiefs to encourage people to change detrimental practices that discriminate against girls, and providing other options of good living to the young girls who are already the victims of child marriage are indispensable.
We all can urge the government to formulate judicious rules of the National Child Policy 2011, so we can unitedly avert any abuse caused on the children, the most precious part of our population.
Mohammad Shaiful Islam teaches English at Independent University, Bangladesh.