Child Marriage: A Social Curse in Bangladesh

Child Marriage:  A Social Curse in Bangladesh

Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child/adolescent marriage worldwide, according to a report by ICDDR, B. In rural Bangladesh, parents encourage marriage of their daughters while they are still adolescents or children in hopes that this marriage will benefit them both financially and socially.

Why child marriage in Bangladesh?

One factor is poverty and poor parents are keen to convert their young daughters into brides. They see it a way to deliver the girl from hunger and a way to ward off famine for the rest of the family.

The second factor is personal insecurity of teenage girls in the male-based community. Cases of violence and acid-throwing instances on girls to disfigure their faces are many. It is estimated that on average, there are over 200 acid mutilations each year in Bangladesh.

The third factor is the cultural acceptability of child marriages in society and therefore it makes it easier for rich older married people to marry young girls

Another repulsive fact is that the younger is the bride, the higher price she may fetch for her father from the older bridegroom. The man is likely to view the age difference as a fair bargain.

In some Catholic countries, there exists a custom that the girls’ age for marriage must be minimum of half of the bridegrooms’age + 7. That means for a man of 46, the minimum age for the bride would have to be 30 years. (23+7=30)

Girls are valuable workers in the family. In parent’s home, a girl can till fields, tend livestock and cook meals. In her husband’s home she is more useful because she can deliver babies.

According to the UN, nearly half the adolescent girls (15-19 years) are married, 57 percent become mothers before the age of 19, and half of all adolescent mothers are acutely malnourished.

Consequences of early marriage:

Early marriage extends a woman’s reproductive span, thereby contributing to large family size, especially in the absence of contraception. In addition, these individual outcomes suggest a number of larger social consequences, including higher population growth, higher rate of maternal mortality and a higher incidence of orphaned children. As a result of these patterns, early marriage is an issue of significant concern to policy makers and human rights advocates.

It has often been the experience that early marriage denies her opportunities for education and independent work. . Ten of millions of girls are reportedly having babies before their bodies are mature enough, increasing the likelihood of death from complications of child-birth.

Is the child marriage Islamic? Many Islamic scholars say that the simple answer is in the negative. Islamic rule lays down that the consent of the girl is to be obtained before she is married but the excuse is that silence of the girl is consent. Silence is not be construed as consent in child marriage because young girls remain perplexed, confused and cannot dare to challenge the decision of her parents.

What can be done to eliminate this ugly social custom?

Social reformers in Bangladesh have expressed their concern about early marriage. Proponents of age of consent laws argue that forcing parents to delay marriage will increase reproductive control, and decrease incidence of domestic violence. More recently, safe motherhood advocates have emphasized that adolescent pregnancies from early marriages constitute a major risk to the survival and future health of both mother and child .(about 326 mothers die out 1000 live births).

Changing cultural attitudes is a slow process. A national awareness progress has to be in place that will try to change attitudes of men. The whole society including the community where girls live ought to be engaged in dialogue underscoring the following:

First, child marriage is anti-Islamic because at that young age girls cannot give consent when they get married. That is why Imams and Muslim clerics should be involved in the education about the unacceptability of child marriage. . They may quote relevant verses from the Holy Qu’ran and remind the community about girl’s rights during public sermons made on Friday prayers.

Second, child marriage is a violation of basic human rights for girls. The right to free and full consent to marriage was recognized in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many subsequent human rights instruments.

The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child is a multilateral treaty in which rights of the child are guaranteed. The provisions of the Convention must be scrupulously followed by the member-states. It is the question of dignity for girls that they are not chattels.

Third, there must be awareness in society that if parents are so poor that girls cannot be fed, social welfare institutions may take care of girls can live there and attend schools. Not only elimination of poverty but also education for girls is necessary. The contribution of girls to economic productivity of a country needs to be emphasized. Empowerment of girls enriches society.

Finally, the laws prohibiting child marriage exist in Bangladesh but the enforcement is very poor and the punishment is mild.

In Bangladesh the Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Ordinance 1984 amends the original law of 1929. Under the law of 1984, a female child means a person who is under 18 years of age. But the punishment for violating the law is mild, namely, only one month in jail or one thousand taka fine or both.

Against the background, the laws are grossly breached openly in the face of law enforcing agencies and the legal system is not effective enough to punish the culprits. Corruption and unresponsive public servants to enforce the law appears to be another problem.

Unless the punishment is severe, it would be violated more than it would be complied with.

To sum up:

Some say child marriages exist because of acceptability by society and some call it “cultural impunity”. Primarily the custom of child marriage is a cultural rather than a specific religious practice. Therefore it has to be primarily fought on a cultural level and one of the two most important factors are education and public awareness of the ill-effects of child marriage on society including the health and life of female married children.

By Barrister Harun ur Rashid
Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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