The Bangladeshi Debate to Lower the Legal Marriage Age is Over


By Re

In Sreenathpur village in the northeastern district of Sunamganj, Bangladesh, just about one year ago, 12-year-old Kalpona Akter Jhuma threatened to commit suicide if her parents had not rescinded her marriage arrangement to a man more than twice her age.

The eradication of child marriage, an infringement of basic human rights but nevertheless an all-too-common plight, is time and again prioritized atop Millennium Development Goals.

According to a Bengali report earlier this week, with an inundation of pressure from Human Rights Watch (HRW) among media outlets that rank among our greatest influencers, the Bangladeshi Ministry of Women and Children Affairs has opted against lowering the legal age of marriage to 16 and 18 for girls and boys, respectively—a highly contentious proposal recently at the forefront of international public debate. A mobile court will additionally be introduced for the visible and speedy trial for the crime of child marriage, the report stated.

“It was very disheartening to see the news that the government [was] even considering lowering the age of marriage, because they have been vocal about wanting to end child marriage and recognizing that child marriage is under 18,” International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) Senior Director for Gender, Population and Development, Dr. Suzanne Petroni told Her Report. “It’s very surprising, given the history of Bangladesh trying to end child marriage.”

Petroni—who was supported by World Bank to study child marriage, early pregnancy and the sexual and reproductive health of adolescents in the slums of Dhaka, was at July’s Girl Summit held in London, when Prime Minister Hasina pledged her commitment to ending marriage for girls under the age of 15. Hasina stated that she’d work to reduce marriage among girls between ages 15 and 18 by more than one-third by 2021, end all child marriage by 2041 and develop a national plan of action on child marriage before 2015. In an effort to avoid illicit relations and co-habitation, however, Bangladesh had considered merely lowering the age of legal marriage to adapt the law and, by virtue, assuage the crime and achieve the aforementioned goals.

Last Monday, HRW warned that millions of girls would be at risk if Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had gone ahead with the proposal, in a nation where 45 percent of the total population is below the age of 18—47 percent of whom are girls.

The impoverished South Asian nation has the second highest rate of child marriage only behind Niger, and the number one highest rate of child brides who are under the age of 15, despite its three-decade-old law that bans marriage for girls under the age of 18. 74 percent of Bangladeshi women currently aged 20 to 49 were married or in union well before 18 years old. About 90 percent of the girls Petroni studied said their ideal age for marriage would be 19 or 20, but one girl was as young as nine, and the rest married at about 15 years old on average.

Percentages are high and ages are low for a gamut of reasons. Some parents choose to marry off their daughters before they might engage in premarital sex, which, culturally, will decrease their “value.” And in a country of 154 million, where one-third of the population lives below the poverty line and many live on less than $2 a day, a dowry is expensive; marrying a daughter before she reaches adulthood lessens the dowry, as she is still young and therefore attractive in both her physicality and purity.

Further, the tendency for girls to elope persuades parents to marry them off early, which they presume will keep their girls less susceptible to street violence.

“There is often a perception—and it could be a perception that parents hold, or community leaders or policymakers—that marriage is protective somehow for the girls, that she is better off, that she is at lower risk of rape or sexual harassment if she is married,” Petroni said. “That has simply not been proven true. In fact, she is very often at higher risk of sexual violence, and physical violence and unwanted sexual attention if she is forced into a marriage.”

A study by the ICRW in two states in India found that girls married before 18 were twice as likely to report being beaten, slapped or threatened by their husbands than those who married later; they later showed signs symptomatic of sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress.

Worse, of the 320 15-19-year-old married girls in four Bangladeshi slums who Petroni studied, most were relatively okay with violence. “They actually, in many cases, said it was okay for a husband to beat his wife if she goes out without telling her husband; 30 percent of them said that was acceptable; 55 percent said it was acceptable for a husband to beat his wife if she showed disrespect for her in-laws,” Petroni said.

Many of the girls endure ensuing rape and intimate partnership violence, often resulting in early and unplanned pregnancies that have potential to put both their own lives and those of her children’s at risk due to health complications. An estimated 50 percent of adolescent girls are already undernourished and suffer from anemia, and girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s. Therefore, pregnancy is consistently among the leading causes of death for girls ages 15 to 19 worldwide, according to the ICRW. Child mortality, too, is 2.5 times higher among children born to mothers who are under the age of 15 than older mothers.

“The girls’ bodies are just not ready for child-bearing, and often because they don’t have access to antenatal care or trained, skilled birth attendants so they face complications and/or death as a result of pregnancy,” Petroni said.

Still, more than half of girls Petroni and her team studied had already had at least one child; 35 percent of the 15-year-old girls had already been pregnant at least once, she said.

Child brides also face a higher risk of contracting HIV as they often marry older men with more sexual experience. But most lack knowledge about reproductive health and birth control. And most girls never had and never will have the opportunity to learn about sexual health—or learn much at all—because they’re likely to drop out of school or denied an education—indicators of early wedlock.

“Girls who completed primary school were much less likely to have married before the age of 13, for example, than girls who hadn’t finished school at all,” Petroni explained, adding that girls who’s mothers had had an education were also less like to marry young. “Education is so critical.”

Girls who complete secondary school are six times less likely to become child brides, and thus Bangladeshi government has, in fact, been offering secondary school scholarships to girls who postpone marriage since 1994.

But the scholarships are among a number of laws the Bangladeshi government had passed in decades both prior to the scholarships and since then—none of which have been enforced.

The 1929 Child Marriage Restraint Act (CMRA) made it a criminal offense to marry, or facilitate the marriage of, a girl under 18 or a man or boy under 21, but many of its provisions are now outdated, including the 1,000 Taka (about US$13) fine imposed as punishment for marrying or facilitating the marriage of a child—despite a 1984 revision of the law.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Bangladesh ratified in 1990, defines a child as anyone under age 18. In 2009 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child strongly suggested that Bangladesh take the necessary measures to define the child as anyone below 18 years old. A Children’s Act passed in 2013 also set the age of adulthood at 18, as well.

“There is a very strong recognition that the legal age of marriage is 18; there are campaigns and commercials and billboards all on this issue, that the government has actually supported,” Petroni said.

But the issue here, she continued, is that often times it is difficult or impossible to determine the actual age of a child, since birth certificates are not always administered. There remains a loophole in the law since girls often don’t know how old they are. “This is a way that families and communities can get around the child marriage law,” Petroni said.

Point blank: Yes, laws must be enforced, but for that to happen, loopholes must be addressed. This requires the work of not only policymakers, but community leaders—birth attendants, educators, parents and international aid agencies like the ICRW who can provide research, evidence and knowledge, among others.

The law will not change. The legal age of marriage will remain stet. It will not lower to 16, and the debate is over. However, the conversation need not be over. Mentalities and practices must change, or the law might never have the chance to be enforced.

Today, one-third of the world’s girls are married before the age of 18 and one in nine are married before the age of 15. If global trends continue as is, 142 million girls will be married before their 18th birthday over the next decade—that is an average of 14.2 million girls each year, according to the ICRW. Bangladesh is among the most dire of situations.