Study disproves govt's reasoning
A Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) study has revealed that 5.79 percent of girls under 18 have love marriages with parental consent while 1.5 percent elope or engage in premarital relations.
This low rate contradicts the government's stance that the excessive number of premarital relationships calls for lowering girls' marriageable age to 16.
As per the current Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929, the minimum marriageable age for girls is 18 years. According to data of a 2009 Unicef report, 66 percent of girls get married before 18.
Findings of the MJF study "Marriageable Age and Child Marriage: Present Status", conducted between September 2014 and August 2015 in 24 districts, was presented at a press conference at the Jatiya Press Club yesterday.
The research surveyed 1,237 households with girls, aged under 18, married off in the last one year.
It has found that the average age of child marriage is 15.53 years, and 65 percent are married off under the age of 16 and 2.26 percent under 12.
"We even found evidence that girl children are married before they are 10," said Banasree Mitra Neogi, programme coordinator of MJF, while presenting the findings.
Recently, the government took an initiative to enact a new law with a provision that would allow marriage at 16 under special circumstances.
"This sub-clause would only give parents more reason to marry off their daughters as early as 14," said Mitra, referring to the law.
Ayesha Khanom, president of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, said the draft of the upcoming law did not give details of the special circumstances that permit lowering girls' marriageable age. But, she added, the state minister for women and children affairs referred to parents' concern about premarital relationships of girls as the reason for keeping that clause.
Shaheen Anam, executive director of MJF, said such a move will go against other laws of the country, including the Children's Act 2013, which defines a child as a person under 18.
She said the government's stance on lowering the marriageable age goes against its education and health policies.
"It will be a disaster for our decade-long movement to end violence against women because child marriage is one of the main reasons behind it," said Anam, also a noted women's rights activist.
Prof Shahnaz Huda of Dhaka University's law department explained that no marriage is illegal unless it is done through fraud, coercion, trafficking or rape.
"The law only stipulates that early marriage is punishable," said Prof Huda, noting the contradiction of adding a clause to decriminalise marriage at 16 while keeping the legal age of marriage at 18.
The MJF study through focus group discussions and in-depth interviews has found that most parents think the suitable age for girls' marriage ranges from 14 to 15 years.
According to the study, 25.46 percent of the respondents mentioned that social insecurity such as sexual harassment causes early marriage; 22.49 percent said suitable grooms were available whereas 18.99 percent cited poverty as the cause.
The study also reveals that men perceive girls under 16 as virgin and hence show higher interest in marrying them while parents feel that less dowry will be required to marry off their under-age daughters.
The government is going to present a report on the condition of the country's children at the Convention of the Rights of Child, which began yesterday at Geneva, Switzerland. The report will include the early marriage issue.