A government move to conditionally relax women's marriageable age of 18 years has drawn immediate flak from rights activists with the latter rejecting it outright.
But the women and children affairs ministry has defended the move saying that the relaxation is meant for specific cases only and will be applicable only under certain circumstances.
Reacting sharply to the move, rights activists said child marriage would increase once the act was implemented, which in turn would increase child and maternal mortality rates, contribute to population growth and intensify social problems such as gender-based violence.
The Ministry for Women and Children Affairs prepared a draft of The Child Marriage Restraint Act-2014 and sent it to the Law Ministry for vetting before placing it to the cabinet for approval with the directive (Anushason) from the Prime Minister.
A provision of the proposed act says though the marriageable age for girls will be 18, marriage of a girl aged 16 will not be regarded as illegal if it is done with the consent of her parents or court for valid reasons.
According to the existing Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, makes it a criminal offence to marry, or facilitate the marriage of a girl under the age of 18 or a man or boy under 21, to “restrain child marriage”.
State Minister for Women and Children Affairs Meher Afroz Chumki told The Daily Star yesterday that the new act would specify under what circumstances the provision of relaxation would be applicable.
The move, which the government initiated last year, drew huge criticism at home and abroad with a number of national and international right bodies asking the government not to lower the marriageable age for girls.
According to the latest report of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the rate of child marriage in Bangladesh is around 66 percent.
Eminent rights activist Sultana Kamal said the initiative would undermine their decade-long efforts not to marry off girls until they reach the age of 18 and this age limit was set following proper analysis from different aspects including that of scientific scrutiny.
“It [new act] will be counterproductive,” Sultana Kamal, the executive director of rights body Ain O Salish Kendra, told The Daily Star yesterday.
Expressing disappointment over the move, Shaheen Anam, executive director of Manusher Jonno Foundation, told this newspaper that the act would encourage child marriage.
“If it [new act] is implemented, parents will forcibly marry off girls without taking their consent. In many cases, parents may marry off girls at the age of 14. We are expressing our concern and protest,” she said.
NHRC Chairman Prof Mizanur Rahman at a programme in the capital said, “Earlier we, on behalf of the National Human Rights Commission, informed the government in writing that anything that allows girls to be married off before 18 is not acceptable to us.”
“The commission thinks it will be a violation of child rights [if the marriageable age for girls is lowered below 18]. We still endorse our previous position," he said.
Salma Ali, executive director of Bangladesh National Woman Lawyers' Association (BNWLA), said, “This [the draft act] is not acceptable at all. We will not accept it.”
She said the government was going to reduce the marriageable age to show the international community that Bangladesh had been able to reduce the percentage of child marriage, which was “actually eyewash”.
The act will also contradict several other laws and international conventions, which consider someone below 18 as a child, she said.
Meher Afroz Chumki told The Daily Star that they were going to incorporate the specific provision considering the real social perspective and to make the act feasible.
She also said as there would be specific conditions where the provision of relaxation would be applicable, the act would not encourage child marriage.
“The Law Ministry is still working on it. We will consider everything before finalising it,” she said adding that it might take three or four months to finalise it.