By Mohammad Ponir Hossain
March 8, 2017
Bangladesh is a global poster child when it
comes to improving women’s status in the developing and the Muslim worlds. It
also outranks all of its South Asian neighbours in terms of gender equality.
The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender
Gap Report has placed Bangladesh above India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka for
two consecutive years. In 2016, the country was placed 72nd among 144 countries
while India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan were placed 87th, 110th, 100th and
The country is ahead of India and Pakistan
in terms of enrolment in primary and secondary education and has leapfrogged
both in immunisation rates and child mortality reduction. Perhaps unexpectedly,
it also tops South Asian countries on the political empowerment gender gap.
These achievements are exceptional
considering the fact that Bangladesh is poorer than India and Pakistan. But the
prevalence of child marriage in the country is a departure from this list of
many cases of “positive deviance” in gender and social statistics.
A Significant Blemish
According to UNICEF, Bangladesh has the
highest rate of marriage in the world among girls under 15. And it is ranked
eighth in terms of marriage under the age of 18.
The country is suffering from a child bride
“epidemic” in which one in three girls is married below the age of 18. By
contrast, a much smaller proportion of girls in Pakistan marry young, although
the 2016 WEF report ranked Pakistan second to last in the world for gender
At the July 2014 Girl Summit in London, the
Bangladesh government pledged to revise the country’s Child Marriage Restraint
Act. Its aim was to end marriage of girls under the age of 15 by 2021.
The government has just passed a bill
penalising early marriages. But it includes a controversial clause saying
“under special circumstances” and with the consent of both the court and
parents, girls under 18 may be married with no penalties for those involved.
Under the previous law, marriage under the
age of 18 was legal for the people marrying because the age of marriage is
governed by personal laws based on religion, including both Islam and Hinduism.
But it penalised acts related to the marriage of a girl under 18, including
facilitating or arranging the marriage, and registering or contracting it.
The new law takes the same approach. But
the previous law provided no exceptions in terms of when acts relating to child
marriage was an offence. Because the new law does this, it is being seen as a
step in the wrong direction.
The chief of the parliamentary standing
committee on women and children’s affairs, Rebeka Momin, has defended the move,
saying that keeping the special provision would not increase child marriage.
She stressed that “there was no alternative to keeping the special provision
considering the socio-economic reality, especially in rural areas.”
The amendment grants more powers to the
parents of girls under 18. It is worrying because it not only overrides public
opinion but objections raised by experts on children’s health and rights. And
it reduces the deterrent effect of the previous law.
Child marriage is driven by a number of
factors such as low rates of education for girls, high fertility rate, the low
social status of women, extreme poverty and concern over insecurity. It is no
surprise that countries such as India, Mozambique, Malawi, Nigeria, South Sudan
and Uganda are global hot spots for child marriage and also belong to the bottom
quarter of countries in the WEF’s Global Gender Gap Report.
Bangladesh’s child marriage prevalence is
not unique in South Asia either. Nepal also ranks highly, despite being one of
the top five climbers over the past decade on the overall global gender gap
index and on educational attainment.
Clearly, there is no single solution to the
problem. But the exception clause is certainly an oddity.
Most countries have some form of exemption
to their legal minimum marriage age. In the United States, for instance, most
states set 18 as this minimum. But every US state allows for children younger
than 18 to marry, typically with parental consent or judicial approval, under
In as many as 27 states, laws do not specify
an age below which a child cannot marry under any circumstances. But
transparent birth and marriage registration systems, gender-inclusive
education, a democratic culture and child rights protection agencies at the
local level ensure that the legal right to marry before 18 is not abused. These
institutional provisions are absent in Bangladesh.
In contrast to high-income countries,
marriage decisions in Bangladesh take place in conditions of extreme poverty
and illiteracy. So legal provisions for marriage under the age of 18 risks the
possibility of increasing child marriage.
Among developing countries with a high
prevalence of child marriage, Bangladesh’s relatively superior rank in several
other gender indicators lends it a unique advantage in the battle against the
practice. It is much better placed than others to gain from primary prevention
strategies that include renegotiating marriage age laws and ensuring that they
are uniform across communities, rather than focusing on “marriage busting”
The controversy about the bill risks
drawing policy attention away from primary prevention strategies and harming
the fight against child marriage in the country.
Acknowledgement: Sajeda Amin, Senior Associate at Population Council, New
York, and Sara Hossain, Honorary Executive Director of the Bangladesh Legal Aid
and Services Trust, co-authored this article.