Child marriage, according to the current Bangladeshi law, is a marriage where either the female is below the age of 18 or the male is below the age of 21. It is associated with many harmful consequences including lower educational achievement, higher incidences of domestic violence, increased chances of falling into poverty and health dangers related to early pregnancies.
Child marriage has been illegal in Bangladesh since the adoption of the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, which was subsequently amended several times, making it a criminal offense to marry or facilitate the marriage of a girl or boy under the statutory age.
But the law has rarely been enforced and remained widely ignored. Consequently, Bangladesh reached one of the highest rates of child marriage prevalence globally. From 2005 to 2013, according to UNICEF, 29 percent of girls got married before the age of 15 and 65 percent got married before the age of 18.
It is a serious violation of human rights and, given that the percentage of male children married before the statutory age is only 4, child marriage is a gender-based violence that needs to be eliminated from our country immediately if the spirit of observing any international occasion related to women's rights is to be truly embodied.
The situation in Bangladesh is alarming and has created barriers to meet Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). In order to end child marriage, Bangladesh has made many regional and global commitments and the government has also committed to eliminate child, early and forced marriages by 2030 in accordance with SDG 5.3.
Formerly, in 1984, Bangladesh acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which obligates states to ensure free and full consent to marriage.
In 1990, Bangladesh ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Child (UNCRC), which sets the minimum age of marriage at 18.
Again, Bangladesh is a focus country of the UNICEF-UNFPA Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage. Bangladesh is also a member of the South Asian Initiative to End Violence Against Children which adopted a regional action plan to end child marriage (2015-2018).
In 2014, Bangladesh, as a representative of SAARC, asserted the Kathmandu Call to Action to End Child Marriage in Asia. At the 2014 Girl Summit, Bangladesh committed to end all child marriages by 2041 and reduce the number of girls marrying between the ages of 15 and 18 by one third by 2021.
Bangladesh has also adopted few national legal frameworks to restrain child marriage. For instance, the adoption of the Children Act, 1974, which recognizes early marriage as a punishable offence but does not ban it.
However, the Child Bill of 2013 was harmonised with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Child (UNCRC) and has referred to the CRC in the preamble and replaced the Children Act of 1974.
The new Child Marriage Restraint Act (draft), drawn up by the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, comes after a UNICEF report which found that on average 65 percent of Bangladeshi girls under the age of 18 and an alarming 29 percent of girls under the age of 15 had been married off.
In July 2014, at the Girl Summit in London, where Bangladesh committed to end all child marriage by 2041, the government of Bangladesh had also made a commitment to revise the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, by 2015. It placed the government under added pressure from the international community to act on the issue.
The government has since begun developing a National Action plan to act to eradicate child marriage. Consequently, the National Parliament of Bangladesh passed the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 2017.
The new law increases the punishment for committing or assisting in child marriages. If the accused is an adult, he would be punished with imprisonment up to two years, or a fine of up to Tk1 lakh.
Similar punishments will be applicable for the guardians, relatives or the marriage registrar who are directly involved in solemnizing the marriage. The license of the registrar could also be cancelled.
This Act is an important step but it contains a special provision that allows a boy or girl to get married before the statutory age limit in some exceptional cases. As per Section 19 of the Act, a child marriage would not be considered an offence if it was for the interest of an underaged girl.
However, this has to be done according to the directives of a court, with parental consent and by following due procedures.
The Act does not explicitly define what the "special cases" are. It ostensibly includes the cases as "accidental" or "illegal pregnancy" or where a marriage would protect a girl's honor.
One of the major concerns of the civil society and women's rights activists regarding this law is the potential abuse of this provision. Critics argue that the provision could support legitimizing statutory rape and encourage the practice of child marriage in a country with one of the highest child marriage rates in the world.
Despite some loopholes, the existing law has a promising impact and the ability to change the future of millions of girls in our country. Keeping in mind the socio-economic scenario of Bangladesh, especially the rural context, this flexibility in the law can be helpful under some crucial situations.
Laws are blind, as they should be, but the enforcers need to be awake and active all the time to ensure the proper usage of the provisions and make it a tool to address the problems.
Nevertheless, the new law is an upsurge for the law enforcement agencies and civil society to formulate plans and take action to eradicate child marriages in Bangladesh.
Dr Md Parvez Sattar is a former access to justice, governance, and human rights expert within the UN system, and is currently employed as a faculty at the Department of Law, Independent University, Bangladesh.
Tarazi Mohammed Sheikh is currently pursuing her bachelor's degree in laws at BRAC University, Bangladesh.
Arafat Reza is an LLB graduate from BPP University, UK.