Child marriage is a worldwide epidemic. It’s especially problematic in Bangladesh. Maybe, you’ve read the heartbreaking story about Nasoin Akhter, a 15-year-old girl from Bangladesh who was recently married to a 32-year-old man. Many girls in Bangladesh have similar stories.
In fact, when it comes to rates of child marriage, Bangladesh ranks fourth in the world. UNICEF estimates that 65% of girls in Bangladesh are married before age 18 and 29% before age 15.
The State of the Law
There are laws against child marriage in Bangladesh. According to the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929, the legal age for marriage in Bangladesh is 18 for women and 21 for men. However, the law isn’t well enforced and, when it is, the punishment for breaking it is weak. At worst, people who break this law receive up to one month in prison or a fine up to 1,000 Taka (this translates to USD $13).
Even though the laws regulating child marriage are already weak, the Cabinet of Bangladesh approved draft language that would make them even weaker. Last September, the Cabinet approved language for the draft Child Marriage Restraint Act of 2014 that would lower the minimum age for girls to marry from 18 to 16 years old. This would be a step back for girls across the country.
While this is only draft language, there has been considerable international outcry. As a result, the Minister of Women and Children’s Affairs has hinted that the minimum age for girls to marry won’t be lowered. However, this hasn’t been confirmed.
The Effects of Child Marriage and Why It Persists
There are reasons why child marriage is harmful and a human rights violation. Child brides tend to face health risks caused by pregnancy, as teens suffer from birthing complications at a higher rate than adults. Child brides also have lower educational achievement and higher rates of poverty. Girls who marry as children also report higher rates of spousal abuse.
Despite the negative consequences for girls, child marriage continues to exist for a number of reasons and poverty is one of the biggest. While not all child brides come from poor families, many of them do. These families struggle to provide for their children and daughters can be seen as a burden. Many parents also think that they’re giving their young daughters financial stability by marrying them off at a young age.
Related to the issue of poverty is the dowry. Even though dowries are technically illegal, they’re still common in Bangladesh. The practice of dowry requires a bride’s family to pay the groom and a girl’s dowry tends to increase as she ages. As a result, less prosperous families often feel pressured to get their young daughters married, before their dowry becomes too expensive.
Tradition is another important factor. For many families, child marriage is what has always been done and what everyone else is doing. Parents often think that they’re doing the right thing by getting their daughters married at a young age. They think they’re protecting them from poverty and the sexual harassment faced as unmarried girls.
What Can Be Done?
While the situation in Bangladesh is unsettling, it’s not hopeless. Recent data suggests that child marriage is on the decline for girls between the ages of 15 and 19, which is a step in the right direction.
Last year, the prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, expressed a commitment to end all marriages to children under the age of 15 by 2021. He also promised to reduce the number of girls married between the ages of 15 and 18, hopefully eliminating child marriage by 2041.
While the Human Rights Watch (HRW) is supportive of the government’s commitment to abolish child marriage, it has pointed out that there has been little action to back up the prime minister’s promises. As a result, HRW has made some recommendations for Bangladesh.
HRW would like to see the Bangladeshi government publish an action plan to end child marriage and make 18 the minimum age for marriage for both boys and girls. It would also like to see the government provide support to its citizens who were married as children. Furthermore, HRW has called upon the government to launch a national campaign against child marriage and ensure that laws preventing child marriage are enforced.
On a regional level, the South Asian Initiative to End Violence Against Children (SAIEVAC), of which Bangladesh is a member, adopted a regional plan to end child marriage. The goal is to implement the plan between 2015 and 2018. On an international level, the UN passed a resolution last November. The resolution urges all countries to enact and enforce laws to prevent child marriage.
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