On the first day of April in 1930, a law came into force in the then Indian subcontinent restraining child marriage. The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, made it absolute that marriage solemnised before one reaches the minimum marriageable age would be seen as a violation of law and thereby, a punishable offence.
"Whoever, being a male above twenty-one years of age, or being a female above eighteen years of age, contracts a child marriage shall be punishable with simple imprisonment which may extend to one month, or with fine which may extend to one thousand Taka, or with both," reads Article 4 of the law.
In independent Bangladesh, we inherited that law and it is still in force. Once the president gives consent to a new bill passed by the parliament on Monday (February 27), this over-eight-decade-old law would be replaced by The Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017.
The idea behind the new law formulation was to make it more stringent and time befitting. And in many counts it is truthfully done. Provisions are incorporated keeping higher degrees of punishments for the offenders both in terms of fine amount and jail term.
The time lapse for taking such offence into cognisance is one year in the 1929 Act, and that has been extended to two years in the new bill that the parliament just passed. Meaning, any court can take a child marriage case into cognisance within two years of the solemnisation of the marriage.
Motives, so far, stand clear that the government wants to give a message to all and sundry that child marriage is a big offence in Bangladesh and no one can get away with it without facing tougher punishments.
This strong message should have been well celebrated particularly in a country where 65 percent of women (of 20 to 24 years of age group) get married before the age of 18. And this day (February 27, 2017) should have been marked in the history as a red letter day, especially in a country which has the world's highest rate of marriage involving girls under the age of 15.
But unfortunately, there is very little to cheer about. And one single aberration in the would-be law spoiled the very spirit of a stringent Child Marriage Restraint Act. While our colonial rulers nearly a century back kept no leeway and made the minimum marriageable age (18 and 21, respectively for female and male) absolute, the government of the day thought it otherwise. In the Child Marriage Restraint Bill 2017, it has kept a provision permitting parents, and in absence of parents, the guardians of under-age children, to get their wards married off with a court of laws consent for the 'best interest' of the children under 'special circumstances.'
When the government first envisaged such a plan two years back to keep a small 'window' open for girls to get married before the age of 18, it had proposed for a 16-year ceiling and showed some socio-economic contexts as pretext. And the 'window' was meant only for under-aged girls then.
Very unfortunately, as many voices were raised from civil right and child right platforms from home and abroad against keeping any 'deviating provision' in the new law, the subsequent months saw further deviation in the bill designed by the Women and Children Affairs Ministry and scrutinised by the parliamentary standing committee on this ministry. Instead of paying any heed to all those protesting voices, the ministry let go of the 16-year ceiling, practically making it possible now for children as young as 15, 14 or even younger to get married under this so-called 'special circumstances' provision.
More unfortunate is the role played by the parliamentary committee, which thought it wise to give an equal 'opportunity' to boys as well. So the members of this committee, who attended the bill scrutiny meeting and incidentally all of whom are women lawmakers, recommended the special 'window' be kept open for both boys and girls, meaning that by applying the 'special circumstances' provision parents and guardians can now attempt to get their male and female child married at any minor age.
There has been a thought process in circulation within the government circle that pregnant adolescent girls, particularly in rural areas, would be ostracised by their communities if they cannot marry. Allowing marriage in 'special cases', such as pregnancy, is their proposed solution. But marriage does not protect girls. Research consistently shows that child marriage goes hand in hand with dropping out of school, losing out on job opportunities, and experiencing domestic violence. And then the question arises, what on earth is their logic behind keeping this 'special circumstances' provision applicable for a male child too? No one in this lawmaking process ever bothered to explain before the nation what prompted them to think that they must have such provision of marriages for under-aged boys. This is disturbing to say the least.
Girls who get married before the age of 18 have an increased risk of complications during pregnancy and childbirth and are more likely to be exposed to violence and abuse. Child marriage negatively impacts schooling and reduces a child's opportunities in life. Unicef says child brides are less likely to receive medical care during pregnancy than women who marry as adults. In Bangladesh, only 16 percent of girls (those married off before 15) get proper medical care during pregnancy, compared to 47 percent women (those who get married after 18 years).
Marriage before the age of 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, for example, covers the right to protection from child marriage in Article 16, which states: “The betrothal and marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage….” The right to 'free and full' consent to marriage is recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says that consent cannot be 'free and full' when one of the parties involved is not sufficiently mature to make an informed decision about a life partner. Although marriage is not mentioned directly in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, child marriage is linked to other rights – such as the right to freedom of expression, the right to protection from all forms of abuse, and the right to be protected from harmful traditional practices – and is frequently addressed by the Committee on the Rights of the Child.
Worldwide, more than 700 million women alive today were married as children. More than one in three – or some 250 million – were married off before they turned 15. Girls who marry before they turn 18 are less likely to remain in school and more likely to experience domestic violence. Young teenage girls are more likely to die due to complications in pregnancy and childbirth than women in their 20s; their infants are more likely to be stillborn or die in the first month of life.
Maternal deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth are an important component of mortality for girls aged 15–19 worldwide, accounting for 70,000 deaths each year. If a mother is under the age of 18, her infant's risk of dying in its first year of life is 60 percent, greater than that of an infant born to a mother older than 19.
When girls are married off young and they get pregnant young, a stiff and uneven competition ensues between the child-mother and the fetus for whatever food the mother intakes. In this competition, the fetus obviously gets defeated by the mother, who, in most cases, is herself malnourished. In the process, the babies of such under-aged mothers are given birth to see the light of this world with low birth weight and poor disease-resistance capacities. This cycle of undernutrition goes on and on.
The writer is Assignment Editor of The Daily Star.