Perhaps we were a bit delusional in thinking that there was a consensus regarding the fact that child marriage, that is marriage of a girl under 18, would be considered a social evil that should be completely shunned in our country. At least that's what we thought – especially after all the lofty promises made by our government to make sure that minors are not forced into marriage, so that girls can continue to study and do not have to drop out at the secondary school level. So that they can have a normal, healthy life without the threat of forced sex, early pregnancy, physical violence and mental trauma that many child brides face because they are so young.
But that unfortunately is not going to happen. The 'special provisions' in the draft of the law to prevent child marriage have been approved by the cabinet. This is the fine print you forget to read in a contract but which leads you to pay a hidden cost for what you think is a pretty good deal. The provisions will allow marriages of girls and boys below 18 under 'special circumstances' as consented by the parent or the court. Despite continuous demands by human rights activists to abolish the provision, the government has chosen to stick to their stance of allowing this dangerous loophole in the law. The special provisions will ultimately allow parents to marry off their daughters not just at 16 but at 15, 14, 13, 12 – there is no lower limit. All they will have to do is cite 'special circumstances'. The State Minister for Women and Children Affairs Meher Afroze Chumki, known for her championing of women's causes, has assured that only when it is in the interest of the child, for instance when an underage girl gets pregnant, will such a marriage be allowed. Such an 'allowance' is not only contradictory to the whole purpose of having the Child Marriage Restraint Act, it is dangerous as it will give legitimacy to many child marriages where all sorts of 'special circumstances' will be cited. We all know how birth certificates and other forms of identification are faked to increase the age of young girls to 18 so that they can be married off. A 12-year-old becoming pregnant as a result of sexual abuse (because that is what it is whether it is consensual or not) being married off to her abuser just to protect her reputation and that of her family's, is an unacceptable, abhorrent premise.
It is bewildering that when the government has made such significant strides in getting more girls enrolled, making education till the secondary level free for them, encouraging them to be part of the work force, even bringing down the percentage of child marriage to apparently 43 percent, they are going to jeapordise all these achievements by allowing provisions in the law that will pull the country backwards in the most debilitating way. And here are the ways in which child marriage cripples a nation (just to remind all those who think the provisions are a great idea):
A study by IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute) research that has actually found a reduction in child marriage (to 43 percent from 62.3) in the last two decades because of rising incomes and education levels, has also revealed, as many other studies, that young married girls (there are still many of them) are also more likely to drop out of school and so will not have the opportunity to work and earn. They will also most likely get pregnant very early, run the risk of birth complications (which could result in them dying) and then give birth to underweight babies who will grow up stunted and underdeveloped. They will also be more vulnerable to cruel husbands and in-laws who may torture them for dowry or for any trivial reason. These girls will either die of the violence inflicted on them or will be physically and mentally ill for most of their lives, making them less productive, unhappy women in, no doubt, unhappy households.
It is therefore a destructive path that we are headed for by ignoring the ambivalence created by these provisions of a law that could have made a big difference in the lives of millions of young girls and ultimately the nation's development dreams. Instead of this wishy-washy approach to child marriage, the government should be concentrating on removing the factors that drive parents to send their girls to a life that will rob them of their childhood, health and happiness. This means enforcing anti-dowry laws and creating awareness about the illegality of taking dowry. It means providing better security for girls, enforcing stringent laws against sexual harassment, quick disposal of cases and exemplary punishment for sex crimes, more schools in all neighbourhoods to make them accessible to girls, better paying jobs for their parents so that poverty is not the reason, and constant messages through all kinds of media that tells society that child marriage is morally wrong and puts a heavy burden on the family's and the country's future. It is inconceivable that all the efforts of the government to take Bangladesh forward are at the risk of being undone because of this controversial provision.
The writer is Deputy Editor, Op-Ed and Editorial, The Daily Star.