Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 59% of girls married before turning 18 and 22% married before the age of 15. During the pandemic, the rate of child marriage increased by almost 13%. Bangladesh pledged to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) to eradicate child marriage by 2030. UNICEF contends that to keep pace with the SDG goal, Bangladesh needs to reduce child marriage 17 times faster than it has in the past decade. Despite their alleged commitment to eradicating child marriage, the nation introduced a clause in national legislation that validates child marriage.
The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 2017 (CMRA) sets the minimum marriageable age at 18 for women and 21 for men and penalizes contracting, solemnizing, and conducting child marriage. However, the law also includes a regressive clause known as a “special provision” in section 19 that legalizes child marriage with parental consent and judicial authorization if it is deemed to be in the best interest of the minor. Subsequently drafted Child Marriage Restraint Rules interpreted the ‘’special circumstances” as teenage pregnancies from romantic relationships without close relatives available to look after the pregnant girls. The provision is ambiguous and lacks comprehensive guidelines on how to determine the best interest of the child or even a minimum age for marriage with parental consent and judicial authorization.
In Bangladesh, child marriage has long been used to control female sexuality under the guise of protecting the family’s honour, reflecting deep-rooted patriarchal values. The requirement for parental consent may be based on these cultural norms, but it does not determine whether a marital union is in the best interest of the child. All child marriages are forced marriages, as children cannot legally give consent. Moreover, international law has codified the notion that children should not be coerced into marriage.
The CMRA 2017 was enacted to replace the Child Marriage Restraint Act, of 1929, and the preamble asserts that it is more relevant to contemporary times. However, the 2017 Act includes a provision that permits child marriage, which was not present in the preceding legislation. Moreover, the Act fails to provide any annulment option for child marriages. Victims of child marriage must go through the cumbersome marriage dissolution procedure which also has discriminatory stipulations.
Other countries with similar socio-cultural characteristics, such as India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bhutan, have raised the minimum marriageable age and reduced or abolished marriage with parental and judicial consent. Bangladesh remains an exception. In light of the alarming rate of child marriage, the special circumstances that permit child marriage should be clearly defined. Child marriage is not a solution to non-marital pregnancy, and the Bangladeshi government must take steps to end this practice entirely.
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