Bangladesh outlawed child marriage in 1929. Yet, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), sixty-six percent of girls in Bangladesh are married before they reach the age of eighteen.
The practice of child marriage is rooted in social tradition and economic need, but it has adverse effects on the health and education of girls. According to a report by the International Center for Research on Women, child brides are prone to suffer domestic violence and abandon school, and as a result of early pregnancy are susceptible to health complications.
When the Bangladesh government developed legislation that led to the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929, it considered various socio-cultural factors—such as poverty and societal values—that drive parents to marry off their young daughters.
The law criminalizes marriages when either party is a minor, classified as girls under eighteen and boys under twenty-one, and penalizes those who permit or aid such a marriage, including parents. Punishment for the crimes can be a fine and up to one month imprisonment.
Bangladesh’s laws on the issue are encompassed by its obligations, including The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which the State ratified in 1984 and prohibits child marriage in Article 16(2).
In 1998, Bangladesh acceded to the Convention on Consent to Marriage, which calls for the “full and free consent” of both parties in all legally binding marriages in Article 1. Article 2 requires states to set a minimum age for marriage. However, Bangladesh reserved its right to apply Articles 1 and 2 of the Convention concerning the issue of child marriage “in accordance with the Personal Laws of different religious communities of the country.” Allowing personal laws of religious communities to supersede international law sustains the practice of child marriage in Bangladesh.
The Law vs Cultural Influences
Adherence to these principles can be complicated in Bangladesh, where many villagers believe that marriage protects a girl’s chastity and is a divine command from God.
As explained by Farah D. Chowdhury, a political science professor in Bangladesh, in a 2004 article in the International Journal of Social Welfare, all females are obligated to become wives and raise a family and the sooner they are married, the sooner the obligation is fulfilled.
Additionally, the marriage of young, submissive, and obedient girls maintains the status quo of a patriarchal society. The older an unmarried girl becomes, the more her family will be shamed in the community.
Economic Advantage of Child Marriage
Beyond the religious and cultural influences, there is an economic advantage to marrying off girls at an early age. Girls are often considered a burden to families because of their financial dependence. Once a girl has been married, her husband and his family must provide for her, thus liberating her parents of their financial duty. When a family is impoverished, there is consequently a greater desire to marry off daughters at a younger age. Further, the parents lessen the financial strain of their daughters’ dowry since the younger the girl’s age at marriage, the smaller the dowry can be.
Bangladesh Does Little to Protect Child Rights
Despite the many laws that child marriage in Bangladesh continues to violate, Bangladesh has done little to enforce the laws and protect children’s rights.
One positive note is that the government does plan to register all marriages and births, which would provide greater oversight. However, Bangladesh’s reservation to the Convention on Consent to Marriage indicates the country is not ready to confront the differing practices based on religious communities. Embracing the whole of the convention both by dismissing the reservations and implementing procedures to enforce all obligations would broaden protection for the Bangladeshi people. Regardless of the existence of legislation to combat the tradition of child marriage in Bangladesh, insufficient enforcement of the laws will preserve the practice of child marriage to the detriment of young girls in the country.
Article By Anusree Garg
Related articles on Plain Talk