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Bangladesh has the highest prevalence of child marriages in South Asia. Currently, there are 38 million girls who were married before their 18th birthday in Bangladesh. 13 million of those girls were married before the age of 15.
Shefali Begum loved going to school. She dreamt of graduating one day, being independent and earning to take care of her parents.
Recently, she was married. The student of class eight lived in poverty, and her family decided this was the best course of action for everyone. At 14, Shefali’s marriage meant she could no longer attend school. Girls often have to take up household responsibilities after marriage, and schooling takes a back seat in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has made great strides in its efforts to combat child marriage, as a result of work done by the government, supported by non-governmental organisations and a wide range of actors. Despite this, it has the highest occurrence of child marriage among South Asian countries, ranked by UNICEF in 2020. Globally, Bangladesh ranks eighth position in having the highest number of child marriages.
BRAC Human Rights and Legal Aid Services programme conducted a field assessment in August 2020, with 4,500 participants who received services from 298 of its legal clinics between 2017-2019. In 298 upazilas, 82% of respondents admitted that they were below 18 years at the time of their marriage, even though their documents show that they have reached the age of marriage by law. This assessment concluded that the extent of child marriages may be more widespread than the official figures (documents to register a marriage can be falsified).
Registering a child marriage in Bangladesh does not have a clear legal process, according to Shahriar Sadat, Programme Head, BRAC Human Rights and Legal Aid Services. As a panelist at the NGO Committee on the Status of Women forum on 22 March 2021, he mentioned that if any girl below the age of 18 gets married, then it falls under the purview of the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017, which outlaws the marriage of girls below the age of 18.
The Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017 Act has an exception clause (Section 19) which allows child marriage under exceptional circumstances. Such a marriage will have to be certified as ‘exceptional’ by the court and requires parental consent. This law is heavily reliant on documents that prove the age of the bride is above 18.
“In most cases of child marriage, the parties involved cannot complete the formal registration due to lack of documents to prove age. The couple complete the religious formalities and start having a conjugal life, with the promise of marriage registration when the girl turns 18”, Shahariar added.
In case of separation, the child bride cannot file a case to obtain remedy. The court does not accept such cases, as the marriages were not legal and lack evidence of proper documents. BRAC Human Rights and Legal Aid Services received at least 12 cases which could not be filed due to this reason. If the marriage results in the girl becoming pregnant, she is then left with no solutions to the child’s maintenance and inheritance rights. These are some of the examples of the legal vacuum in Bangladeshi law.
Shahariar stressed three points as a broader solution to this existing problem:
In keeping with the Prime Minister’s pledge to end child marriage, the Government of Bangladesh has launched a National Action Plan in 2018 and has undertaken several initiatives to prevent child marriages. With its partners and stakeholders, the government aims to eliminate child marriages in Bangladesh by 2041.
Read more: IamBRAC: How to stop child marriage
Meeting the SDG target to end child marriage by 2030, or the national target to end child marriage by 2041, will require a major push from the government and development practitioners. It will take strong, consistent and collaborative efforts to ensure that girls like Shefali will not have to sacrifice their futures to the repercussions of child marriage.
Karishma Mahfuz is a deputy manager of communications at BRAC Human Rights and Legal Aid Services.
BRAC Human Rights and Legal Aid Services programme has been working in creating awareness among adolescents, parents and community leaders at the grassroot level. Several Human Rights and Legal Education classes and Local Community Leader workshops are being undertaken to develop human rights awareness and increase gender sensitivity. These workshops and classes build bonds amongst the local elites to translate into heightened engagement in reducing human rights violations, such as child marriage, that take place within the community and creates a platform for enhanced cooperation and reduced corruption among grassroots administration. In 2020, the programme surveyed 6,000 awareness workshop participants. It was found that 3,704 cases of violence against women and children were prevented by the participants. Out of those 3,704 cases, total 541 were related to child marriage prevention.