The draft of 'Prohibition of Child Marriage Act - 2016' received the final approval at a Cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on November 24. It seems to be a piece of good as well as bad news. Good news is that marriageable age for girls will generally remain fixed at 18. The bad news is that, " in special situations, for the best interest of a minor girl, she can be married with consent of court and her parents." The law does not specify an age limit for these special circumstances.
Child marriage defined as 'formal marriage and informal union in which a girl/boy lives with a partner as if married before the age of 18' - is one of the most serious menaces in the world. It is reported that Bangladesh is one of the countries where the incidence of child marriage is rampant with about 63 per cent of girls being married before the age of 18 and 24 per cent before 15. This statistics has been more or less accepted by the international community. Until recently, there was also a rumour that the government was mulling the idea of fixing the minimum marriage age at 16. Arguably that would be suicidal as the 'sweet 16' of a girl's life turns into 'sour 16' when she bears the brunt of early pregnancy and other complexities and when their sweet dreams are dashed to the grounds.
To what extent are the cited figures of incidence of child marriage acceptable? It depends on the angle you look at. If married women of the age bracket 18-24 are taken into consideration, it would be found that many of them were married before 18 and one would possibly reach a figure like 50-60 per cent. But if the one takes the whole population in age group 18-24 into consideration and then see how many were married before 18, the figure could possibly be 22-25 per cent.
What drives child marriage? Available documents produced by domestic and international agencies tend to adduce high prevalence of child marriage in Bangladesh into two broad groups: a) socio-economic, and 2) legal and policy related. Among the social-economic reasons the following are very important: (a) concern over safety and security of unmarried adolescent girls that is closely linked with family's reputation; (b) dowry associated with girl's age of marriage increases i.e. the higher the age (even education) of the bride, the higher is the cost of the groom; (c) poverty and lack of economic opportunities to keep girls on economic activities. In a typical society, girls are considered as liability - the sooner disposed of, the better it is for the family, and traditional religious and social norms. Among the legal/policy related reasons, the most important seems to be the lack of implementation of Child Marriage Act, lack of proper birth registration, and lack of accountability of the marriage registrar.
Available surveys find that lack of education is strongly associated with levels of child marriage - 80 per cent of women with no education and 30 per cent with secondary education are married by age 18. Poverty levels also propel child marriage as the trade-off leads to the sacrifice of the "liability" (girls) keeping the "asset" (boy) with parents.
Availability of jobs helps delay in marriage, and there is an inverse relation between access to job and marriage. In fact, availability of work or jobs for women increases the opportunity costs of rearing children and hence reduces fertility.
Whether the proportion of child marriage is high or low, there is little disagreement to the fact that child marriage is a violation of human rights. It adversely affects education, health and well-being of girls and perpetuates cycles of poverty. The adverse impacts of child marriage are summarised succinctly by Mingming Remata-Evora, Country Director, Plan International Bangladesh, which run as follows: "It forces a child to become a wife and belong to her husband and his family; it often forces a child to become a mother when she is merely a child herself, damaging her health; it forces a child to need to care for a baby when she still needs support to care for herself. As a result of her marriage, many doors will close for a girl including her chance to go to school, which will be seriously diminished".
The odds of child marriage are many. For example, available empirics show that children becoming stunted significantly increases if born to a teenage mother; a large section of the women dying during delivery fall below 18 years of age; girls married before 18 are at greater risk of physical and psychological violence, etc. Another adverse effect of child marriage is early pregnancy and childbirth. These can have detrimental and long-term health effects on girls whose bodies are not developed enough to give birth, and also increase health risks to the newborn.
Ipso facto, it is our plea that girls' age for marriage should not be lowered to 16 - turning 'sweet' to 'sour'. Every girl has a dream. How to reduce child marriage? I shall draw upon (paraphrase) some studies to arrive at some solutions:
- Enforce legal processes to stop child marriage: Ministry of Law, Justice & Parliamentary Affairs should enforce legal processes to stop child marriage and involve the community in this process. One mechanism for doing so is sensitising local Union Parishad members and Chairmen on child marriage issues. This will enable them to assist law-enforcement agencies in preventing child marriage. This should go hand in hand with a series of other measures.
- Implement online birth registration across the country: The Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives should ensure that the online birth registration system is implemented across the country so that girls' correct ages will be known and the falsification of age will be prevented. This will enable legal steps to be taken by law-enforcement agencies to stop child marriage.
- Improve girls' safety in communities, including through national and community-based child protection systems and mechanisms: Strengthen national child protection systems, which are vital to help prevent and respond to child marriage. Community-based child protection mechanisms should also be strengthened and increased, and embedded in the union-level Standing Committee for Women.
- Girls' education up to degree level should be made free: As the Prime Minister has aired the idea on many occasions, girls' education should be made free up to graduation level.
The writer, a former Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University, is acting Chair, Economics and Social Sciences Department (ESS), BRAC.