News Analysis: A crucial battle lost, not only for women | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 13, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:01 AM, March 13, 2017

News Analysis: A crucial battle lost, not only for women

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No plea, no criticism, no opposition worked. The controversial provision allowing child marriages under “special circumstances” has been brought into force with the president signing the Child Marriage Restraint Bill 2017 on Saturday.

This development will do nothing but reverse the achievement from years of struggle to restrain child marriages.

During the British colonial rule 90 years back, women in the Indian sub-continent waged a strong movement demanding a law to discourage child marriages. The demonstrations were such that the then leading politicians felt the need to support a bill in favour of anti-child marriage law.

Different women's organisations had participated in campaigns making people aware that child marriage was the very obstacle to women's progress, that the social menace was what caused women to lose any opportunity for education and left them stunted physically and mentally.

Under the banners, “All India Women's Conference”, “Women's Indian Association” and “National Council of Women in India”, women placed their arguments in favour of raising the permissible age for marriage before a committee that scrutinised the bill.

Muslim women also presented their views before the committee in support of increasing the age limit, knowing very well that they would face strong opposition from Muslim Ulemas.

Discussions on the evils of child marriage began at the beginning of the last century. But the Indian political class woke up to the social threats only after Census 1921 reported that there were 600 brides between one and 12 months.

That was followed by vigorous campaigns demanding a law to restraint child marriages. Subsequently, the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 was enacted.

It was the first time, women in India stood against a social issue together and met success.

The law set minimum marriageable age for women and men at 15 and 18 respectively without any exception, and it was the time of the British rule in the whole Indian subcontinent.

After independence from West Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh inherited the British act. The law was then amended in 1984, raising the minimum marriageable age again to 18 and 21 for women and men.

Now after all these years, Bangladeshis face different reality; not a way forward. Rather, the government made an attempt and stuck to it to lower the permissible age for marriage.

In fact, the provision allowing child marriages doesn't specify age and “special circumstances” to be considered. This leaves scope for a girl or boy to be married off at any age -- be it 12, 10 or further below.

Different women organisations protested against the provision when it was first approved by the cabinet a few months ago. They even took to the streets and appealed to the government not to go ahead with the provision.

Their predecessors during the British rule were listened to by the then political class and the government. But this time the plea of the rights groups fell on deaf ears. 

After the bill was passed in parliament on February 26, many appealed as a last resort to the president not to give his consent to it. But President Abdul Hamid signed it into law.

The law, as many fear, would give rise to child marriages in Bangladesh.

Early marriage leads to early pregnancy. One third of teenage girls aged 15 to 19 in Bangladesh are mothers or are already pregnant, according to Unicef.

“Adolescent mothers are more likely to suffer from birthing complications than adult women."

Prior to the enactment of anti-child marriage law in 1929, pro-reform politicians such as Motilal Nehru were caught off-guard when women's associations met them asking for their support to their cause. 

They put pressure on politicians, shouting slogans like “if you oppose the bill, the world will laugh at you”. The women's groups also succeeded in having by their side Mahatma Gandhi who spoke of the evils of child marriages in his speeches.

As the 1929 law was passed, victory was credited to the women's associations that portrayed it as India's meeting its commitment to modernisation. 

For the last 45 years, Bangladesh lived with this law. We have no idea what made it necessary to replace the law.

But one thing stands clear, the women of Bangladesh lost a battle in 2017, which they had won in 1929.

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