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Provision of lowering girls’ marriage age will be harmful: Debapriya Bhattacharya

Published in Daily Observer on Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Provision of lowering girls’ marriage age could be misused, experts fear

But Minister Chumki defends special clause in law

Banani Mallick

Today the government is going to celebrate Internationals Women’s Day amid widespread criticism of government’s approval on February 27, the Child Marriage Restraint Act-2017 bill keeping much talked about special provision that allows a boy or a girl to get married before reaching the minimum age limit.

The bill was passed by voice vote in the parliament after State Minister for Women and Children Affairs Meher Afroz Chumki placed it before the House.

There is a widespread apprehension that the provision of lowering girl’s marriage age on special conditions will be misused. The Daily Observer has talked with different stakeholders to know their views.  The current law permits marriage after the age of 18 for women and 21 for men, with no exceptions and the draft did not set any minimum age for such “exceptional” marriages.

Women rights activists and experts said that government Vision 2020 and achieving SDGs goals will be seriously hampered due to this provision.

Different development stakeholders observed that government is playing double standard: on the one hand it is talking about women’s development, on the other, it has created barriers for women by inserting the special provision.

Eminent economist, Debapriya Bhattacharya said that this provision will close all the opportunities and scopes for the women and girls. “This special provision will be harmful to the girl children in many ways. Naturally, people in the rural level want to get her daughter married off in the early age. Now this act will simply inspire them to arrange child marriage,” he said.

It is so unfortunate that despite many discussions with rights groups and other stakeholders belonging to government and civil society, the administration has taken such a decision to disregard all their misgivings regarding the provision and gone ahead in approving it.

Talking with the Daily Observer, Meher Afroz Chumki, State Minister of Ministry of Women and Children Affairs said that the provision would only be applied under strict scrutiny.

When asked the reason for keeping such a special provision which may justify marriages of girls not only under 18 or 16 but even younger, she said that the culture and social reality of our country is was not the same as other countries of the world.

“Our girls become physically mature earlier than girls of other countries of the world because of our geography. And if accidentally she gets pregnant without marriage, what to do? We should consider all circumstances including our social customs and norms,” she said.

The cabinet-approved Child Marriage Restraint Act-2016 was placed in Jatiya Sangsad in December last year and sent to the relevant parliamentary body for scrutiny.

Nur Khan, Executive Director of Ain O Salish Kendro, said that government has made girls more vulnerable in terms of their health and education by approving such a provision.

“Earlier, if parents would arrange their underage daughter’s marriage, at least her classmates, teachers and neighbours used to protest but now no one will raise voice because of this special provision. Lots of scope has been created to misuse the law,” he said.

The same provision  is applicable for boys as well, this means boys below 21 could get married under “special circumstances.

UN Women Representative in Bangladesh, Christine Hunter talking to the Daily Observer said that over the past decades, Bangladesh has made tremendous progress in improving the lives of women and girls and we can all see how women are contributing to the development of the country – through their work, as community volunteers and as leaders.

To continue this progress for women and for the country, we have to support girls to develop their full potential. Focusing on the best interest of girls means continuing the efforts to keep girls in school and supporting girls’ opportunities to use that education to get jobs, develop businesses or become the next generation of leaders.

However, UN Women, as an organization mandated to promote gender equality around the world, is concerned at the special provision in the new Act (Article 19) which allows for marriages of girls under the age of 18 in exceptional circumstances.

Such a provision is not in line with the recommendations made by the Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women Committee’s in their report on Bangladesh last November or what the CRC (Convention on the Rights of the Child) Committee recommended to the Government of Bangladesh in its October 2015 report.

According to Unicef, “Early marriage leads to early pregnancy. One third of teenage girls aged 15 to 19 are mothers or are already pregnant (in Bangladesh). Adolescent mothers are more likely to suffer from birthing complications than adult women.”

Unicef Representative in Bangladesh, Edouard Beigbeder, said that they are concerned at Bangladesh government’s special provision of Child Marriage Restraint Act.

Asked if Unicef has any plan to prevent misuse of such special provision, he said that they will continue their work on to minimize the potential misuse of this special provision.

He also added that they will also continue their dialogue with government on CRC recommendations and supporting government on National Plan of Action and launching some major campaigns.

We have National Child Marriage Report and we also witness the number of child marriage is getting less from 66 percent to 44 percent, he said.

“We do believe that now it is 50 percent. That means we have broken the half. And we are optimistic that we will break more as the social norms are also getting changed,” he said.

Johan Frisell, Swedish Ambassador, talking to the Daily Observer said that no country should allow child marriage in any circumstances. Research has shown that if girls get married before 18, they will lose opportunity.

When asked what the possible impact would be, if this provision is being implemented, he said that it is so early to make any comment.

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