Is it possible to end child marriage in Bangladesh, a country that has the highest rate of child marriage in the world? The Human Rights Watch (HRW) organization and other child and women activist groups are calling it an epidemic that can only be stopped with enforcement from the country’s government.
In October 2014, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, pledged that she would bring an end to child marriage of children under age 15 by the year 2021. She also promised to decrease the number of brides age 15-18 by a third and eventually end all child marriages by 2041.
Bangladesh made child marriage illegal back in 1929 and set the minimum age for marriage for girls at 18 in the 1980s. Unfortunately, the government neglects to legally enforce it or handle the problems that cause girls to get married so young.
HRW asks that the government authorize a plan to stop child marriages that would include required marriage registration for religions, an increase in national birth registration and help for young girls recently married or adults that were married below the minimum age.
Despite the government’s promises to tackle the problem, they have not followed through. Instead, it did not reply to HRW’s demands and Hasina has mentioned revising the Child Marriage Restraint Act (CMRA) by lowering the age limit for girls to just 16. The Act was originally passed to give family courts the ability to cancel marriages if necessary and mandate a penalty of two years in prison and a fine of Tk50,000 (US$647).
HRW responded in frustration, “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.”
HRW is not the only one displeased. Plan International Bangladesh, Save the Children and Girls Not Brides have all insisted that minimum age be left unchanged. Girls Not Brides is an organization made up of 450 members from more than 70 countries. They look to create national and global policies to bar child marriage.
HRW published a report, “Marry Before Your House is Swept Away,” that details the struggles of 59 girls and young women who were married before age 18 since 2010. One girl was married at just 10 years old. The 124-page report reveals what contributes to child marriage and how it affects these young brides. It contains interviews with parents and community leaders that help draw a larger picture of the situation.
In 2011, UNICEF estimates that 65 percent of women in Bangladesh aged 20 to 24 were married by the time they were 18, 29 percent by age 15. According to Girls Not Brides, one-third of girls worldwide are married before age 18. That is 5 million girls every year— 28 girls each minute. Some are as young as 8 years old.
In developing countries, girls are viewed as burdens to their families. It is one more person to feed, clothe, school, etc. The dowry a family must raise can be less if the girl is young and uneducated. Bangladesh is troubled with more natural disasters and effects from climate change than most other countries. These manage to bring people into worse poverty and even steal away their home and land.
Besides governmental intervention, education is necessary in the fight to stop child marriage. Studies find that when girls attend school for seven years or more, she marries, on average, four years later. Education is a source for empowerment, important skills and networks of support — essential tools needed to lift her family out of poverty.
The U.N. approved a resolution in November 2014 that encouraged countries to adopt new laws and policies to stop child marriages. Hopefully, laws to eliminate child marriage will be a part of the new Sustainable Development Goals to be implemented by the U.N. in September 2015.
– Lillian Sickler