A loophole in a new Bangladeshi bill could impose a “zero minimum age of marriage,” which is now being hailed as a “devastating step backwards” in the campaign to end child marriage in the South Asian country.
Child advocates say that while the Child Marriage Restraint Bill maintains the legal marriage ages of 21 for men and 18 for women, it allows for “special cases” and other exceptions if they're in the teenager's “best interests,” The Independent reports. Under these clauses, critics suggest that victims of sexual abuse could be forced into marriage with their abuser — victims who are pregnant are even at a greater risk.
According to Girls Not Brides, a group committed to ending child marriage, examples of “special cases” all involved unacceptable reasons that would hurt rather than help the child in question. Instead, the group is urging Bangladeshi officials to pass other measures that protect education and give young girls opportunities to create a better future for themselves.
“We are concerned that this new act could lead to widespread abuse, legitimize statutory rape, allow parents to force their girls to marry their rapists, and further encourage the practice of child marriage in a country with one of the highest child marriage rates in the world,” the group said in a statement.
“The need to protect the 'honor' of girls who have become pregnant was widely cited by the Bangladesh government as the reason for this provision. However marriage is not the best way to protect adolescent girls and exposes them to greater harm.”
With 52 percent of Bangladeshis married by 18, the country has the second-highest rate of child marriage in the world. Unfortunately, this reality increases maternal mortality rates, domestic violence, and birth complications. And what is worse, forcing girls into marriage also decreases their chance of having an education.
A few years ago the child marriage rate was at 66 percent so the decline the country has experienced gives advocates hope. But with this new bill, things could become harder for young girls across the country.
“We are concerned that this law could be misused and worsen the problem that we are seeing in Bangladesh,” Unicef's Bangladesh representative Edouard Beigbeder told The Independent.
While the bill has been backed by the Bangladeshi parliament since February, amendments will be added only this Sunday. The country's minister for women and children’s affairs, Meher Afroze Chumki, said that details on the “special provisions” would be confirmed later.
It's tragic to see that, perhaps, the future of these girls might be in jeopardy because of a badly written law. It's good to see activists working hard to bring light to this issue.