Half of all child marriages occur in South Asia

Staff Correspondent | Update:

(L-R) additional secretary Mizanur Rahman, rights activist Salma Ali, and BHRC chairman Kazi Reazul Hoque, speak at a seminar on Sunday at Brac Centre Inn. Photo: Prothom AloWhen it comes to child marriage, laws have little value in the face of social norms. And the special provisions in the child restraint act do very little to curb the practice of underage marriages. This is considered a controversial law and has met with considerable consideration from various quarters in the society.

Speakers at an event, ‘Sharing Findings of the Child Marriage Law Analysis in South Asian Countries’, expressed their concern on inadequate measures to prevent child marriage and called for more stringent and effective measures in this regard. Organised by the Tipping Point Project of CARE Bangladesh, the programme was held on Sunday, 20 August, at the BRAC Centre in the capital city.

Assistant country director of CARE Bangladesh Arshad Mahmud said that social norms are serious obstacles when it comes to preventing child marriage. While laws are important for long-term policy, these laws hardly have any value if the society is not motivated.

He pointed out that under-nutrition was one of the main problems in Bangladesh and that child marriage was a major cause of malnutrition in both women and children.

Dr Shahnaz Huda, professor at the Dhaka University department of law, presented her finding from her comparative analysis of child marriage laws in South Asian countries.

Almost half of all child marriages that occur in the world, take place in South Asia, according to the study.

Touching on the various age limits for marriage in South Asian countries, Shahnaz Huda said that the British Child Marriage Act 1929 had stipulated the minimum age of marriage for girls as 14 and for boys 18. In 1984, Bangladesh raised this to 18 and 21 respectively.

In Pakistan the minimum marriage age for girls in 16 and for boys is 18, though the Assembly of Sindh independently changed this to 18 for both girls and boys.

India’s minimum marriage age is 18 for girls and 21 for boys, but its laws are more proactive. India has prohibition against child marriage, not mere restraint. The law there is termed the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006.

In Bhutan the minimum age for marriage is 18. On a positive note, it officially recognises marital rape.

In Nepal, the law sets the minimum age for marriage for both genders at 20.

In Sri Lanka, the minimum age for marriage is 18. However, it relaxes this in the case for Muslim girls.

Bangladesh’s Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017 is more comprehensive than in the past and has increased punishments of six months to two years’ imprisonment and a Tk 50,000 fine for parents and guardian responsible for child marriage.

Marriage registrars responsible for such marriages can be punished and their licences can be cancelled.

However, the study criticised the provision for punishing the under-aged persons undergoing such marriages.

The main criticism against the new law is the special provision which allows exceptions for child marriage if the marriage takes place ‘under special circumstances’ and ‘for the greatest benefit of an under-aged girl.’ This means that child marriage is legal under special circumstances, though there is a lack of clarity as to what the special circumstances are specifically. The court has very wide powers of discretion in this regard.

Referring to marriage due to accidental pregnancy, Shahnaz Huda pointed out that this was forcing one child to marry in order to legitimise the birth of another.

The bottom line is, the study indicated, that no matter what the other provisions of the law may contain, a girl can marry below the age of 18.

In Bangladesh, the Child Marriage Restraint Act doesn’t invalidate a marriage, even if the girl is below 14.

Salma Ali, executive director of Bangladesh Women Lawyers Association, said that everyone was aware of the problems pertaining to child marriage, so the question now was, what is to be done. She said they had challenged the law out of social responsibility as ‘best interests of the child’ was a vague term and could be used easily to marry off under-aged girls.

She said it was futile to bring up examples of the US and other developed countries, as those countries didn’t have the same problems of forced marriage and other circumstances that existed in Bangladesh.

She said that if victims of child marriage went to court, there were lengthy and tedious processes of investigation and fact finding, compromises, corruption and other impediments. Judges had differing mindsets. Some were child friendly, particularly women judges. However, the entire process was time consuming, and by then the damage was done.

Current affairs TV presenter Mithila Farzana said it is not a matter of misusing or misinterpreting the law because the law clearly allows marriage of a girl below 18 years of age. She said there need for a comprehensive study to clearly pinpoint how many such marriages have increased after this law was enacted.

Additional secretary of the women and children affairs ministry Mizanur Rahman said that the special provision in the law was not there to support child marriage, but to leave it to the discretion of the judge. He said that the law had been made as stringent as possible. He said that laws won’t stop child marriage. It is the society that has to be prepared. The people have to be agents of change.

Chairman of the Bangladesh Human Right Commission Kazi Rezaul Hoque said that though this was a controversial law, there was a case underway in this regard. Nothing is hard and fast, he said. Laws are for people’s welfare and can change. He pointed out that even though there was a special provision in the law, a marriage couldn’t take place without the court’s permission.

He highlighted the government’s commitment to entirely eliminate child marriage by 2021.

Humaira Aziz, Director- Women’s Empowerment, CARE Bangladesh, moderated the discussion. Women activists, media persons, NGO representatives, lawyers, academics and others joined in the debate and discussion.

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