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Bangladesh and the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2016: a recap

Parveen (left) is a health worker in Dhaka, Bangladesh, who supports pregnant women in her communities. She is part of the Manoshi project, run by BRAC with support from UK aid. | Photo credit: Ricci Coughlan / DFID.

In the next few weeks, the Parliament of Bangladesh is due to review the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2016, which includes a provision that would allow child marriage in “special cases”. The proposed new law also does not specify a minimum age of marriage.

Here is what you need to know.

1/ Currently, the law in Bangladesh says that women need to be 18 to marry, and men 21. The Child Marriage Restraint Act 2016 would weaken this law and make girls more vulnerable to child marriage.

On paper, child marriage has been illegal in Bangladesh since the adoption of the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929. However, the law is poorly enforced and the punishment – up to one month in jail and/or a fine of up to 1,000 Taka (US$13) – rarely acts as a deterrent.

Although elements of the proposed new law – stiffer punishments and better law enforcement – are welcomed, allowing marriage under 18 in “special cases” would be a step backwards for Bangladesh. It weakens the existing law and would risk worsening an already dire situation. 52% of girls in Bangladesh are married before the age of 18, one of the highest rates in the world according to UNICEF (2016).

Girls Not Brides Bangladesh, a coalition of civil society organisations working on addressing child marriage in the country, has issued a warning about the potential impact of the proposed provision.

2/ Marriage does not protect adolescent girls.

The Bangladesh Government is concerned that pregnant adolescent girls, particularly in rural areas, would be ostracized by their communities if they could not 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.

Instead, we must work with families and communities to ensure that girls are supported to stay in school, have access to the information they need to take control of their own bodies, and thrive.

3/ The proposed law is at odds with Bangladesh’s bold and ambitious commitments to end child marriage.

At the 2014 Girl Summit, Bangladesh committed to ending child marriage by 2041 and reducing the number of girls marrying between the ages of 15 and 18 by one third by 2021. The Government has since begun developing a National Action Plan to this end.

However, progress stalled after the 2014 proposal to lower the age of marriage to 16 years old was announced. The latest attempt to authorise marriage at any age in “special cases” would directly affect Bangladesh’s ability to fulfil its ambitious commitments.

4/ Countries all over the world are taking steps to strengthen their laws and policies to protect girls and end child marriage.

In the past four years alone, 12 government have made legal changes to raise the age of marriage or remove legal loopholes and exceptions.

Bangladesh’s neighbour, Nepal, increased the age of marriage to 20 and came up with a national strategy to end child marriage, which addresses the concerns driving parents to marry their daughters before 20. The strategy focuses on ensuring quality education for girls, working with families and communities – including men and boys – to change mentalities, and ensuring access to government services.

South Asia as a whole has adopted a regional plan of action to address child marriage, as well as the Kathmandu Declaration which lays out 12 concrete steps that governments can take to strengthen their laws and policies. Bangladesh endorsed both.

There are solutions to end child marriage. Allowing girls under the age of 18 to marry in “special cases” isn’t one of them.