Bangladesh:Stop Plan to Lower Marriage Age to 16
June 9, Dhaka: Despite promises to end child marriage, the Bangladesh government is yet to take sufficient steps to end child marriage,Human Rights Watch said in a new report which was released today in response to the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s attempt to lower the age of marriage for girls from 18 to 16 years old, raising serious doubts about her commitment.
The 134-page report by HRW, “Marry Before Your House is Swept Away: Child Marriage in Bangladesh,” is based on more than a hundred interviews conducted across the country, most of them with married girls, some as young as age 10. According to the rihts group, the report documents the factors driving child marriage in Bangladesh – including poverty, natural disasters, lack of access to education, social pressure, harassment, and dowry.
Human Rights Watch also details the damage that child marriage does to the lives of girls and their families in Bangladesh, including the discontinuation of secondary education, serious health consequences including death as a result of early pregnancy, abandonment, and domestic violence from spouses and in-laws.
Similarly according to a study by UNICEF, Bangladesh has the highest rate of child marriage of girls under the age of 15 in the World, with 29 percent of girls in Bangladesh married before age 15, and two percent of the girls in Bangladesh are married before age 11. “Child marriage is an epidemic in Bangladesh, and only worsens with natural disasters,” said Heather Barr, senior researcher on women’s rights. “The Bangladesh government has said some of the right things, but its proposal to lower the age of marriage for girls sends the opposite message. The government should act before another generation of girls is lost.”
Though,child marriage has been illegal in Bangladesh since 1929, and the minimum age of marriage has been set at 18 for women and 21 for men, Bangladesh still has the fourth-highest rate in the World of child marriage before age 18, after Niger, the Central African Republic, and Chad. Sixty-five percent of girls in Bangladesh marry before age 18.
Human Rights groups have pointed out that the government’s failure to enforce the existing law against child marriage and address the factors that contribute to it means that child marriage is a coping mechanism for poor families: Parents who are unable to feed their children, or pay for their education costs, may seek a husband for their daughters simply so that the girls can eat;
Poor girls lack access to education because their families cannot afford fees for exams, uniforms, stationery, and other associated costs even when education is “free”;Girls who leave school at a small age are often married by their parents;
Another finding of the report shows the role natural disasters play in child marriage. Bangladesh is among the countries in the World most affected by natural disasters and climate change; many families are pushed by disasters into deepening poverty, which increases the risk that their daughters will be married as children. Families described feeling under pressure to arrange marriages quickly for their young daughters in the wake of a disaster, or in the anticipation of one. This was particularly common among families who faced losing their home and land through the gradual destruction caused by river erosion.
The Bangladesh government is failing to take effective action against child marriage. In 2014, at the international “Girl Summit” held in London, United Kingdom, Bangladesh’s prime minister vowed to end child marriage. She outlined a series of steps to do so, including reform of the law and development of a national plan of action by the end of 2014. Neither of these steps have been achieved. Worse yet, the Bangladesh government has taken a step in the wrong direction by proposing to lower the minimum age of marriage for girls from 18 to 16 years old.
Many local government officials also fail girls at risk. Awareness is growing that marriage of girls under age 18 is illegal under Bangladeshi law. But this awareness is fatally undermined by widespread complicity by local government officials in facilitating child marriages. Interviewees consistently described local government officials issuing forged birth certificates showing girls’ ages as over 18, in return for bribes of as little as US$1.30. Even when marriages are prevented by local officials, as they sometimes are, families find it easy to hold the marriage in a different jurisdiction.
“The Bangladesh government should follow through vigorously and promptly on the public commitments Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made to end child marriage,” Barr said. “The first step should be to back away immediately from the proposal to lower the age of marriage for girls to 16.”
“Human Rights Watch’s village-level research documents a failure to enforce the law against child marriage and crucial gaps in health, education, and social support programs that should be doing more to assist girls at risk of child marriage,” said HRW.
Selected Testimony By HRW
“I don’t have enough money to feed my daughters – that’s how I decide when I should marry them.” –Fatima A., mother of five.
“Whatever land my father had and the house he had went under the water in the river erosion and that’s why my parents decided to get me married.” –Sultana M., who married at age 14 and is now 16 years old and 7 months pregnant.
“I got married because I quit school.” –Mariam A., who married at age 15. She left school after class 5 because going on to class 6 would have involved higher costs and a longer walk of 3.5 kilometers each way.
“Elders [male community leaders] in the area might say your daughter is getting old,” is Rekha H.’s explanation for why both her older and younger sisters were married at age 11, and Rekha herself married at age 12. “No one said anything, but [my parents] were afraid, so before anyone could they got us married.”
“Now she is pretty and young and we can give her away for free. If you bring the police we will have more problems when she gets older.” –Ruhana M.’s older brother, arguing for why Ruhana should marry at age 12, after her uncle threatened to prevent the marriage. The marriage went forward.
Rabiya A. married when she was 13 and her husband was 30. “My in-laws said, ‘If you want to study you can,’ but as soon as I was married they said, ‘It’s not possible,’” Rabiya said. Rabiya is now 14 and said her in-laws and husband are disappointed that she is not pregnant yet.
“My in-laws didn’t really want babies, but I didn’t understand how to take medicines to not have a child. I was very young, so I just got pregnant.” –Lakshmi S., who married at age 12 and now, at age 18, is the mother of a 6-year-old son and an infant daughter.
“[H]e forcibly entered me and I would cry so much that everything would get wet from my tears. It was so difficult, so painful. The first time, the next day I couldn’t even move and they took me and gave me a bath.” –Rashida L., who married when she was 10 or 11.
“When the Kazi [Muslim marriage registrar] saw that my daughter’s birth certificate said that she was 14, he refused to do the marriage,” said Farhana B. “He took it to the [local government] chairman and got it changed and then did the marriage.” The chairman charged the family 100 taka [$1.30] to change the birth certificate.
“This is a place affected by river erosion,” Azima B.’s parents told her, explaining why she had to marry at age 13. “If the river takes our house it will be hard for you to get married so it’s better if you get married now.”
The Oslo Times and HRW