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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 32
Augsut 11, 2007

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Human Rights Advocacy

Early Marriage

Why does it happen and how we can stop it

Laila Noor

Dhaka, July 19 (News Network) Taslima Begum of Comilla was married off with a 22-year-old man at an age when she could not even utter the word 'Kabul' (accepted) to recognise the marriage. It was her grandmother who acted as proxy for her. When Taslima got adult, she refused to accept the marriage. “I cannot accept a marriage which was arranged when I was only two years old,” she told her mother.

Having failed to convince her, Taslima's parents arranged her marriage somewhere else when she turned 20. Now 32, Taslima is blessed with two lovely kids and happy with her present husband. In Bangladesh, child marriage is widespread, particularly in rural areas, although there is a law against it. The underlying reasons are poverty and lack of awareness. “It goes back to traditional idea that kids have to be married at an early age,” says Taslima. “Now time has changed. People do understand the damaging aspects of early marriage. Still, early marriage takes place in our society due to the emergence of new problems.”

Taslima's husband Helal Uddin, who is three years older than her, agrees with his wife and says, “In most cases, parents arrange the marriage of their children thinking little whether they are capable to take the responsibility of the families.” Healal's mother Saleha Begum, however, does not agree with her son and daughter-in-law. “It's better for the girls to get married at an early age when they look pretty and are obedient. When girls get adult they become arrogant and they don't want to carry out orders. Boys are also better off getting married early because they tend to be more attentive to earning only after marriage,” says the old lady.

Many people in the country are of the same opinion. Village girls, in particular, are forced to get married at an early age, which cannot be stopped although early marriage is discouraged by many international charters, including the United Nations CEDAW. The UN General Assembly formulated a charter in 1962 regarding the minimum age of marriage, consent of bride and bridegroom and marriage registration. Bangladesh is a signatory to the charter. And early marriage is prohibited under the existing law of the land too. Male under the age of 21 and female under the age of 18 cannot get married as per the section 2 of the Early Marriage Prevention Act, 1929.

Unfortunately, early marriage is taking place at random showing little respect to the law. Why cannot the existing law play an effective role in stopping early marriage? Human-rights activists and social workers say that according to the law early marriage is a punishable offence, but it is not banned. Besides, people do not abide by the law because there is hardly any campaign to make the people aware about it, let alone the solving social problems.

Hasan Imam Khandaker, the project director of Assistance for Slum Dwellers that has been working for a long time with street adolescents, says although a girl's minimum age for marriage is 18, a staggering 75 percent of the girls are married off between 15 and 19 years of age.

Explaining the reasons, he says, “Most people in our country are poor and always suffer from a sense of insecurity about their daughters. Therefore, they want to heave a sigh of relief after marrying their daughters off at an early age.”

About the existing early marriage prevention law, he says, “Parents are the secure refuge of children, so enacting law against parents and guardians is not the solution. But birth and marriage registrations can help reduce the trend of early marriage.” According to the information of UNFPA, a UN front organisation, the average age of marriage for Bangladeshi girls is 16.9 years. Statistics provided by Bangladesh Demographic Health Survey (BDHS-2005) show Bangladesh tops the world when it comes to early marriage. During 1993-93, 47.2 percent of the country's females were married at the age of 16 and the tendency is upward.

A recent survey by Steps Towards Development, carried out in Chowgachha upazila of Jessore, shows the rate of early marriage among girls is three times higher than that of boys. According to a Unicef research, 48 percent of the females are married off before being adult. Five percent of the girls, aged 10-14, are married off. Steps Towards Development executive director Ranjan Karmaker says, the tendency of early marriage in the country is relatively higher and socially it is approved although there is a law against it.

“While registering a marriage, the minimum age of bride and groom can be proved by the birth certificate. But, in spite of many initiatives, the birth of 88 percent babies and most marriages in rural areas are not registered. Besides, 70 percent of the registered marriage is actually early marriage. So, it is clear that the law is ignored and the situation is getting worse day by day.” Karmaker emphasises the importance of public awareness to stop early marriage and says union parishad members, kazis (marriage registrars) and imams have an important role to play in checking early marriage. “The first thing to stop early marriage is to ensure registration of birth and marriage in cooperation with all concerned. After that it's necessary to build a social cordon with the help of the administration and the locals.”

Recently in Comilla, an imam conducted the marriage of 16-year old Ayesha Khanam. Mizanur Rahman, a local kazi, points out, “In most cases, the ages of brides and grooms are determined by their parents for lack of official records. Therefore, it is not possible to detect the early marriage. And if a kazi refuses to conduct the marriage, the responsibility is then given to an imam to do that. The problem of early marriage also persists among the indigenous people and in different anthropological sectors. Malobika Hajong, an indigenous social worker, says, “Despite knowing about the law, many don't abide by it. Although the registration is mandatory for the Christian and Muslim communities, there is no registration system for the marriage of the Hindus, Buddhists and the indigenous people. Therefore, the age remains unknown.”

Gourango Patra, president of an indigenous organisation, says about 99 percent of the females of his community are married off at an early age. Experts blame poverty and lack of awareness for the failure to check child marriage. Mahmuda Islam, a professor of Dhaka University's Sociology Department, says, “The social problems behind early marriage will have to be solved. First of all, the guardians will have to be made aware about the adverse impacts of early marriage. People will be respectful to the law only when they will understand it.”

Former Advisor to the caretaker government and executive director of Ain O Shalish Kendra Sultana Kamal in a recent press conference said, “It seems impossible to reduce early marriage if there is no overall change in the attitude of women.”

About checking early marriage in different anthropological sections and indigenous communities, she said advocacy at the national level and enactment of identical family law are needed to make a unified marriage registration and divorce process for all religions. “It's essential to address the main causes first to put an end to early marriage. The government will have to play the main role in implementing the steps. Above all, media's active cooperation and people's conscious participation are needed to prevent early marriage,” she said.



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