By Shyikh Mahdi

The National Parliament of Bangladesh passed the Child Marriage Restraint Act-2017 bill today (February 27, 2017), with a special provision that allows a boy or a girl to get married before reaching the statutory age limit in some exceptional cases. The bill was passed by voice votes in the parliament after State Minister for Women and Children Affairs Meher Afroz Chumki placed it before the House. After the publication of gazette notification by the Law Ministry, this Act will replace the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929.

One of the major concerns of the civil society and women’s rights activists regarding this law is the provision that allows marriage under the statutory minimum age. As per section 19 of the Act, a child marriage would not be considered an offense if it was for the interest of the underage girl. However, this has to be done in line with the directives of a court, with the consent of the parents, and following due procedure. Critics are concerned about the potential abuse of this provision.

At the 2014 Global Girl Summit, Bangladesh committed to ending child marriage by 2041 and reducing the number of girls marrying between the ages of 15 and 18 by one third by 2021. The Government has since begun developing a National Action Plan to this end. Although this movement came to a halt when the plan of reducing marriageable age of girls to 16 years (from 18 years) were faced with severe criticism from all corners.

The new law increases the punishment for committing or assisting in child marriage.  If the accused is an adult, he would be punished with imprisonment up to 2 years and/ or a fine up to BDT 1 lakh. Similar punishment will be applicable to the guardians, relatives or marriage registrar who directly get involved in child marriage. The license of the registrar could also be cancelled.

In the past four years alone, 12 government have made legal changes to raise the age of marriage or remove legal loopholes and exceptions. Nepal increased the age of marriage to 20 and came up with a national strategy to end child marriage, which addresses the concerns driving parents to marry their daughters before 20. The Nepalese strategy focuses on ensuring quality education for girls, working with families and communities (which includes both men and boys) to change preset mentalities and prejudices.

According to Girls no Brides, South Asia as a whole has adopted a regional plan of action to address child marriage, as well as the Kathmandu Declaration which lays out 12 concrete steps that governments can take to strengthen their laws and policies. Bangladesh endorsed both, although this provision in the Act is regarded as a blow to this measure.

However, keeping the socioeconomic scenario of Bangladesh especially the rural context in mind, this flexibility in the law can be helpful in special circumstances where some crucial situations (like pregnancy) might occur. If the careful scrutiny of every case is properly ensured by the authority, this provision might be helpful in addressing the problems.

Interestingly, a flexibility in the marriage law is not very uncommon, as a 2012 UNFPA study reveals that around 146 countries of the world accepts the marriage of a child under 18 years under specific circumstances.

“In 2010, 158 countries reported that 18 years was the minimum legal age for marriage for women without parental consent or approval by a pertinent authority. However, in 146 countries, state or customary law allows girls younger than 18 to marry with the consent of parents or other authorities; in 52 countries, girls under age 15 can marry with parental consent. In contrast, 18 is the legal age for marriage without consent among males in 180 countries. Additionally, in 105 countries, boys can marry with the consent of a parent or a pertinent authority, and in 23 countries, boys under age 15 can marry with parental consent.”

– Marrying too young, a study by United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)

Bangladesh is a Muslim majority country with complex cultural dynamics; marriage is often regarded here as a safe harbor for young girls by the conservative parents. Peer pressure, social insecurity and a number of factors work as driving force behind the phenomena where the families take resort even to illegal means for child marriage. Yet, the outlook is gradually changing, which can be mobilized by strict compliance of the law and the responsible practice by the concerned persons from all sectors. Furthermore, the provision of flexibility will be helpful to redress any unwanted case that might need special attention.

Laws are, after all blind as they should be. The enforcers need to be awake and active all the time.

(The featured image was illustrated by Ratna Sagar Shrestha, Himalayan Times.)