New Bangladesh marriage law is blow to children's and women's rights

In Bangladesh, a large majority of young girls continue to be forced into marriage, and the government must stick to its promises to put an end to this practice, writes Barbara Matera.

By Barbara Matera

18 Nov 2014

In what appears to be a setback for the protection of young girls and women in Bangladesh, the government is planning an amendment to the law that will lower the legal marriage age from 18-16.

This is especially worrying as this goes against international commitments made by the Bangladeshi government on this issue.

According to Unicef, Bangladesh has the second-highest rate of child marriage in the world, following Niger.

While there has been a slow trend towards improvement, the statistics are frankly staggering - 66 per cent of Bangladeshi girls are married before the age of 18, and over one third of girls are married before the age of 15. Moreover, around 74 per cent of women aged 20 to 49 were married or in a union before the age of 18.

For these young girls, the cost of child marriage comes at a high price in terms of health and access to education. Unicef reports that in Bangladesh, only 45 per cent of adolescent girls are enrolled in secondary school. Even fewer attend regularly.

"66 per cent of Bangladeshi girls are married before the age of 18, and over one third of girls are married before the age of 15"

New brides are expected to work in their husbands' households and are subject to the same hazards as child domestic workers. Further, one third of  the country's teenage girls aged 15-19 are mothers or are pregnant, with adolescent mothers more likely to suffer from birthing complications than adult women.

Last July at the girl summit in London, Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister of Bangladesh, pledged to take steps to reduce and ultimately end child marriage in Bangladesh by 2041.

She further committed to end marriage for girls under the age of 15 and reduce marriage among girls aged 15-18 by more than a third by 2021.

Nevertheless, recent developments in the country - such as the proposed reduction of the legal marriage age - indicate that the government of Bangladesh is actually moving in the opposite direction.

A human rights watch analysis of the proposed policy change explains that it would eliminate access to legal recourse for child brides aged 16-18, since they would be legally married and therefore not 'child' brides as such.

Although access to legal recourse is already limited for Bangladeshi child brides of all ages, removing even this small strip of protection leaves young girls substantially more vulnerable.

The government of Bangladesh needs to realise that amending its law by lowering the legal marriage age will have devastating effects on the wellbeing of millions of young girls and women in the country, reversing any progress made so far.

At the same time, the EU needs to closely monitor the situation, ensuring that the Asian nation is complying with its international obligations and that the EU funds that are currently being allocated in Bangladesh for this purpose actually offer the expected level of protection to those who most need it.


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