The Human Rights Watch has urged Bangladesh’s Parliament to stop a new law which has a special provision for legalising marriage of underage girls.
The cabinet’s approval of the draft ‘Prohibition of Child Marriage Act - 2016’ last month has raised questions about the government’s sincerity over the issue.
The move was a huge step backwards for Bangladesh, said Heather Barr, senior researcher for HRW’s Women Rights Division, in a statement on Friday.
She crticised Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for going back on a pledge made in 2014 to end child marriage by 2041 and set a national action plan for ending marriage of under-15 girls by 2021.
“The next step is for the draft law to go to the Parliament, expected in the coming weeks... Bangladesh’s parliamentarians now have a crucial chance to stand up for girls, where the prime minister has failed to do so.”
Bangladesh has the highest rate of child marriages in Asia, with 66 per cent of girls marrying before the age of 18, according to the Unicef.
While the current law without exception sets the legal age for marriage of men and women at 21 and 18 respectively, the new law says a young girl can marry in ‘special circumstances’ given she has the approval of court and her parents.
The draft does not specify a minimum age for girls in these ‘exceptional’ cases.
THE SPECIAL PROVISION
"Whatever is said in the other parts of this act, if a minor girl, in some special circumstances, is married due to her best interest with consent from court and her parents, it will not be considered a criminal act under this law"
The ‘special circumstances’ described in the draft as ‘accidental or unlawful pregnancy’ was very worrying, according to the US-based rights body.
“It is also difficult to know just what is meant by “unlawful pregnancy.” It suggests the law could lead to a situation where girls who have been raped are forced to marry their rapist.”
The HRW statement said the existing law on child marriage has been ‘widely ignored’, but a strict law still meant the focus could be on its enforcement.
But the draft that received the Cabinet’s nod, while toughening penalties, “weakens existing law by making some child marriages legal”, it said.
“Weakening the law is a setback for the fight against child marriage, and sends a message to parents across the country that the government thinks child marriage is acceptable in at least some situations.”
According to bdnews24.com, Cabinet Secretary Mohammad Shafiul Alam, after the Cabinet meeting on Nov 24, told reporters the provision meant to offer a ‘solution’ to existing problems.
“If there is an unmarried mother, who has a child... if there is a case like that... then this provision will provide protection. There can be a lot of situations that lead to marriages like this. This process is aimed at legalising them.”
“In our county they get pregnant after running away at age 10 and 11. There are these problems, so this is the solution.”