Calling out to you, Begum Rokeya
Dear Begum Rokeya,
I have been speaking to you for the past couple of days. I have been visiting you repeatedly in different sites, going back to your books and write-ups, and felt the urge to write to you. Technology has brought us so close today!
Dear Begum Rokeya, in your days, you fought against discrimination against women, and throughout your life you worked for the equal rights of girls and women. Your journey, along with that of some other visionary women of this land like Shamsun Nahar Mahmood, Begum Sufia Kamal and others, helped us get to this stage. I presume that you are observing the fulfillment of Sultana's dream. Today, your Sultanas are in leadership roles; that of the prime minister, a highly educated Speaker of the Parliament. You must be observing women at every place – from traffic signals to the Secretariat, as police officials and district commissioners and judges. Your Sultanas are now in the army, the navy and the air force. You will find them as Union Parishad members in the village as well as Ansars paving the way for other rural women to find their strength. I am certain that if you had known that more and more girls are being enrolled in schools and are doing better than boys in public examinations, you would have felt that your life's work was finally bearing fruit. You paved the path for us, and those who followed your footstep made the path wider for us to tread easily.
Alas! Despite all these milestones in the past century, especially since our Liberation War, today, in 2017, we are standing at the brink of a possible step backwards. I am speaking about the special clauses of the proposed Child Marriage Restraint Act 2016. The Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 fixed the age of marriage at 18 for girls and 21 for boys. Since then, there have obviously been child marriages in this country, but as a nation we frown upon it, find it unacceptable.
I remember that when I was in the third year of college, my father called me to inform me that it was time for me to get married as I was over 18, and he had to think about his other five children, especially two other girls. He also assured me that he would ensure that his "would-be-son-in-law" 'allowed' me to complete my studies. I kept silent, as it was the norm back then to accept whatever decision your parents made for you. However, this is 2017, and according to a study (Belal hossain et al, DU) shared last month at a seminar, only 8 percent girls are consulted about their marriage even today!
Dear Begum Rokeya, today, we are calling you for help. Recently, the Parliamentary Standing Committee has cleared the text of the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2016 with the special clause permitting parents to marry off both girls and boys at a lower age if the situation demands so (in case of rape and unwanted pregnancy caused by this). Apart from the age factor, another clause of acquittal of conducting child marriage under the stated age (Article 10) has also been kept. I am forced to wonder, do people think that girls will happily consent to marry their rapist, or deliver the child of a rapist under the title of marriage? If the law is passed, it will give ample scope for misuse by different quarters, even by the parents of children who with or without proper knowledge may ruin their children's lives.
The childhood of these girls is snatched away in the name of marriage, and their tiny shoulders are bent with the many folds of responsibilities. By their mid 30s, most of these girls have the life of an old woman, and their later life is at the mercy of others. I felt ashamed when my housemaid informed me that her daughter, who is only 11 or 12 years old, has been married off, a marriage that was also registered in the local Kazi office in the city. When I protested, she told me that in her situation, 'marriage' would be the only option to protect the girl and the family from a 'bad name'. The situation is worse in remote areas, where the community itself becomes the source of fear and anxiety. Most of the child marriage victims return to their parents in the next few years with a child in their arms or in the womb, because their husbands have abandoned them - he couldn't take care of them anymore, or he lost interest in his wife and wanted to remarry. The parents of these abandoned girls become further burdened because of the additional mouths to feed. The situation worsens for her children if she opts for a second marriage, as there is fear of abuse from the stepfather or abandonment from the mother. If we think about it, wouldn't you say that there is a need for a cost-benefit analysis of this predicament, and for making people aware of the economic consequences of child marriage?
We called our leaders to revisit those critical aspects of the 'special clauses' of the proposed law. We stood on the road; we shouted slogans at the Shaheed Minar; we gave facts and figures; we shared the latest knowledge/findings; we met the powerful; we made fervent appeals for a second thought; our newspapers wrote numerous numbers of editorials and articles; talk show speakers spent hours speaking on those critical aspects of the law. And yet nothing worked, just as we had expected.
Dear Begum Rokeya, we badly need your help today to tell the decision makers that these special clauses are not required, to inform them that we would be able to handle the 'special circumstances' under the existing laws and with good governance. We just need to allow our girls to study and feel protected. So that they can make their space in the world on their own.
One of your fellow sisters
The writer is a development worker.