Why child marriage is good for neither

A still from Afia Nathaniel’s Daughter.

There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact," writes Arthur Conan Doyle in The Boscombe Valley Mystery. When the Cabinet approved the draft Child Marriage Prevention Act 2016 in this country on November 24, the deception looked more obvious than the fact. The draft proposes to keep the marriageable age of girls at 18, but allows "exceptions" under special circumstances such as accidental or unlawful pregnancy. Not sure what the framers of this law have in mind. Is this law going to promote healthy marriages or protect unhealthy relationships?

The intent of this proposed legislation is downright perplexing. It's like saying that murder is a crime, but not so if the victim has died already. Young girls can become pregnant during a consensual relationship if they engage in unprotected sex. But in many cases they become pregnant after being raped. We read news of such despicable instances when lustful men from influential families or political parties force themselves on helpless girls. 

If traffic laws are made with accidents in mind, accidents aren't made with traffic laws in mind. Imagine making exceptions at red lights or on one-way roads. Violations will multiply since there's no dearth of drivers eager to break traffic rules. The proposed child marriage law is flawed for the same compelling reason. Underage girls from insolvent families will be at the mercy of predators, who will see it to their advantage to marry girls impregnated by them to avoid punishment. These atrocities are being committed in this country for centuries!

Rape remains perhaps the only crime in the world for which the innocent has to feel guiltier than the guilty. In faraway Canada, a certain judge recently asked an alleged rape victim why she couldn't keep her knees together at the time of her molestation. It's the double standard of men that they reduce women to a life-support system for their carnal desire, and then also blame women for succumbing to it.

The underlying assumptions of the proposed child marriage law are the thresholds of physical and mental growths when a man or a woman is mature enough to enter conjugal life. A house needs to be finished before people can move in to live there. A painting needs to dry out before being put up for an exhibition. 

Likewise, the scientific recipe for marriage is that a girl must be at least 18 and a boy 21 before they're ready for nuptial vows. While the proposed child marriage law recognises that fact, the twist comes from exceptions. This is where this law accommodates the instincts of men and grossly neglects the wellbeing of girls. Deeply defective, it undermines prevention of child marriage like a weep hole gives away an airtight room.

The irony is that exceptions make the proposed law more a diversion than a deterrent. Anybody, who knows the way of things in this country, knows that the 18-and-above requirement is regularly tampered by arbitrarily increasing the age of girls. But adding the exceptions brings an additional firepower to the arsenal of mischievous minds, who will exploit the words not the spirit of the law, and bend it to their advantage. 

Which is happening in Bangladesh all the time, particularly in the villages. Rapists are often forced to marry their victims in a second round of cruelty as justice is compared to the mercantile wisdom of having a customer pay for the merchandise he breaks while shopping. A more repulsive practice is to compensate a molested girl by giving her family a bundle of cash or a parcel of land. 

What will change if the proposed child marriage act becomes law? Probably nothing, if not further encouraging lewd men through its consequent loopholes. Minor girls will be forced into marriage. Deprived of their chances to get education, seek independence, and prepare for challenges, they, wounded in body and soul, will drag themselves through what should be one of the most fulfilling experiences of life. 

Fruits are artificially ripened when gassed with ethylene. But young girls cannot be forced to be adults until they have come of age. For economic or other reasons, pitiable parents are compelled to marry off their daughters at a tender age. Now that education is free and jobs are available, girls should be given the chance to grow up in the natural process.

Most parents these days think of early marriage out of safety concerns for their adolescent daughters. But many of them know child marriage is good neither for the child nor the marriage. If the draft law is passed in the parliament, we shall miss yet another opportunity to make that connection. 

The writer is the Editor of weekly First News and an opinion writer for The Daily Star. Email: [email protected]