Decreasing wedlocking age, and today’s medieval era!
Shanjida Israt Jahan Efat
If a nation dreams for an economic sustainability, equal social, economical and legal frameworks are essential for men and women. Child marriage is a universal crisis affecting 15 million girls every year. The practice strictly limits their life choices, and there is a growing consensus within the global community that it has far-reaching consequences for the girls, their families and their communities.
The General Assembly of United Nations passed a resolution asking all member states to pass and enforce laws banning child marriages in 2014. Many members have responded rapidly to the call by enacting new laws to bring an end to child marriage. Unfortunately, at the same time, the government of Bangladesh has been contemplating a move that would authorize girls to marry at the age of 16 with parental consent and/or approval from the courts. If the law is passed, it would mark the first occasion that the legal age of marriage for a girl has been lowered in the Indian subcontinent since the "Child Marriage Restraint Act" came into effect in 1929.
Existing law, in Bangladesh, provides that the minimum age of marriage for girls is 18 years and for boys it is 21 years. Though the law is frequently overlooked and hardly enforced. The new draft legislation on child marriage under review by the government of Bangladesh would introduce harsher punishment for forced marriage of children by increasing the monetary penalty up to fifty thousands, and expanding the maximum period of imprisonment from three months to two years.
At the same time, the draft bill has a special provision stipulating that "Under special circumstances, marriage of 16-year-old girls to men above 21 years, with permission of parents or courts, would not be considered as 'child marriage'." State Minister for Women and Children's Affairs, Meher Afroz Chumki, enlightened that the special provision in the draft bill can help 'Tackle elopement and unwanted pregnancies'. Even our Prime Minister agreed with her in her recent speech in the parliament.
In Bangladesh, if we raise a question, "What compels a family to marry a girl off before the attainment of the legal marriageable age?" We will find several reasons other than 'Tackling elopement and unwanted pregnancies'! For instance:
* Child marriages constitute a vital part of our customs and cultural.
* One of the leading causes of early marriage is the over-emphasis on virginity and chastity of girls and the consequent control of the sexuality of girls. The sexuality of girl children is connected to the status and reputation of a family.
* Even in Bangladesh child marriages are planned and conducted to create an allianace between two families for social, political and economic reasons.
* Early marriage is believed to decrease the risks associated with the sexual abuse of girl children such as molestation, rape and trafficking as well as to avoid the instances of pre-marital sex and pre-marital motherhood.
* There is a perception that exists that girls who are married off early are easier to mould as per the desire of the matrimonial household. Marrying a girl off while she is still young is believed to be less expensive than waiting till she reaches adulthood.
* Because of illiteracy, most parents and families that practice early marriage are unaware of the health risks that come with it. Early marriage leads to early motherhood which endangers the young mother's health as well as that of her child. Neighbours, relatives, grandparents, all can influence parents into getting their children married. Parents can find it difficult to resist such pressures.
* The girls subjected to this practice are caught in a continuous cycle of subordination and dependency as, due to their position, they lack the capacity to take independent decisions, pursue their education and earn a living. The girls are rarely consulted about her own marriage.
However, this is not the first effort by the government of Bangladesh to amend child marriage laws. Last year a bill was introduced in the parliament to lower the legal minimum age of marriage for women from 18 to 16. Local activists and international organizations, including Human Rights Watch strictly stood against the proposal. Then the government pronounced that the legal minimum age of marriage for girls will remain 18.
In the month of July, 2014 Girl Summit in London, the government of Bangladesh made a commitment to accelerate the pace of change. The Government of Bangladesh took a decision to revise the 'Child Marriage Restraint Act' to increase penalties for conducting, committing, directing solemnizing and registering child marriage by 2015 and to eliminate marriage of girls below the age of 15 by 2021,which was highly appreciated. The work of the Ministry of Women & Children's Affairs in expand a national plan of action to eliminate child marriage in consultation with development partners, civil society and international organizations.
According to the Women's Life Choices and Attitudes Survey (WiLCAS), 2014, a collaborative research of the University of Kent, UK; Malaya University, Malaysia; and BRAC University, Bangladesh, 83 per cent of married women aged between 20 and 39 had arranged marriages. Another research by BRAC demonstrated that 74 per cent of adolescent girls accepted the grooms chosen by their parents and less than 1 per cent of adolescent girls adopted tremendous measures, such as elopement if their parents did not agree to their choice of a life partners. The findings of the two studies contrast with the government's reasoning behind reducing the minimum legal age for girl's marriage to 16 from 18 with parental consent and/or approval from courts in the proposed amendment of the Child Marriage Restraint Act.
In justifying the present bill, the government has spotted out that minimum legal age of marriage in the most developed countries is below 18 years. But it is significant to recognise that in most of these societies, arranged marriages are not the norm and the age of marriage is not dictated by social custom.
According to the UNICEF report, in 2014, the eradication of child marriage is slowly occurring, still, the rates are high with 66 per cent of girls are married before the age of 18. UNICEF report found that 74 per cent of Bangladeshi girls had been married off under 18 years. Bangladesh has one of the highest numbers of under-15 child marriages in the world, according to the report published in July, 2014.
In Women Development Policy 1997, Bangladesh had laid a concrete foundation for economic progress. Political and economic areas play an imperative role in the establishment of women's leadership; we see the continuation of women's leadership in Parliament. Many associates traveled to this policy, which was the great obstacle to having a breakthrough/milestone. But only twenty years after the approval of the policy, the proposed amendment of the Child Marriage Restraint Act emerges a question, "Why are we going back to the medieval system?"
For the well being of our society minimum age of marriage for girls should be 18 years. We should not give validity of a marriage below the age of 18 years. Current government is walking the backward.
Shanjida Israt Jahan Efat is Lecturer,
Department of Law, Notre Dame University Bangladesh