‘Not So’ Sweet 16: Child Marriage in Bangladesh

Up until 2016, the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 was the only statute that considered Child Marriage to be an offence in Bangladesh. It had responsibly set a legal age for girls (18 years and above) and boys (21 years and above) eligible for marrying. What the Act lacked was a proper sentencing provision. It imposed Penalty to any adult party to a child marriage, any person or any parent/guardian who promotes or permits a child marriage to be solemnized or negligently fails to prevent it may be punished with one month imprisonment or a fine of Taka 1000 or both. Clearly, the Act rather favored the offenders in ‘settling things’ for just a thousand bucks or a short trip behind bars than actually punishing them. But we can go easy on it since it was enacted in the British period. Now that we are proudly into the 21st century, could we afford to step backwards regarding our decisions?

The upcoming Child Marriage Restraint Act 2016 somehow managed to do so. This proposed Bangladeshi Act has a provision that would allow child marriages in “special cases”. It states that the minimum age would remain 18 will be supplemented girls may be legally married at 16 under “special circumstances.” This has been criticized by organizations and activists fighting child marriage, since it effectively permits the harmful practice to continue. The proposed new law although has stricter punishments but that single provision mentioned above would be a step backwards for Bangladesh.

Let’s just accept that marrying a child is immoral. It is a degradation of personality. The effects it has on a child is devastating. It is that virus which is slowly consuming the conscience of the society. This is only apparant, if we take a look at the relevant facts and figures.

According to a 2016 report UNICEF finds that 52% of the girls in Bangladesh are married before the age of 18.
In 2015, Bangladesh has been ranked fourth in the world, not in preventing but having the highest percentge of child marriages in Asia, according to UNICEF.
Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world. 64% of women currently aged 20–24 were married before the age of 18.
As of September 2014, one third of teenage girls aged 15 to 19 are mothers or are already pregnant.


In the rural areas of Bangladesh, be it poverty or superstition, a girl child is considered to be a burden to her parents. Many families in this part of the world live way below the poverty line. Therefore, the sooner their girl child is married off, the easier it becomes for them to continue running the family. But marriages become expensive due to the established custom of dowry. Despite the country having a Dowry Prohibition Ordinance 1986, this practice is still rampant in many parts of Bangladesh. Parents encourage early marriage out of fear that the dowry price will increase as their daughter ages. Hence, a child bride becomes ‘inexpensive’, saving her parents from paying a huge amount to the groom’s family. A helpless child becomes a pawn between two parties’ greed.

A Child bride is often more likely to experience domestic violence and less likely to take action against this abuse. It affects her physically and obstructs mental growth. In most cases, just one year into the marriage, she goes through the pressure of bearing a child. Early pregnancy is known to involve considerable health risks. She would face a higher risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases because of her marriage with an older man with more sexual encounters. Teenage mothers are more likely to suffer from severe complications during delivery, which results in higher rates of diseases and mortality in both the mothers and their children

The Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey 2007, which was released in 2009 shows that the median age at marriage for women is 16.4 years, against 16.0 in the previous DHS (2004), but still 18 months below the legal minimum age, indicating that laws or policies alone do not guarantee implementation.

Issues relating to entry into and dissolution of marriage are governed largely by personal laws, statutory and non-statutory, which are specific to each community. Therefore, even though child marriages are statutorily punishable, they remain valid under various personal laws (including Hindu and Muslim law). Marriage registration is compulsory for marriages solemnized under the Christian Marriage Act, 1876 and the Special Marriages Act, 1872. ‘‘Muslim Marriages and Divorces Registration Act, 1974 states that any marriage solemnized by a Nikah Registrar (Marriage Registrar) must be registered at once; however lack of registration will not invalidate the marriage.’’ Hindu marriage registration is currently optional under the Hindu Marriage law.

By signing the UN Convention on Child Rights and other similar conventions, and based on the laws and policies pertaining to children, the government has defined anyone below the age of 18 as a child. Bangladesh has also committed to ending child marriage by 2041 and reducing the number of girls marrying between the ages of 15 and 18 by one third of 2021. With the existence of such an Act, will Bangladesh be able to fulfil its ambitious goals? While the country is busy neglecting its female rights, it’s neighbour Nepal had increased the age of marriage to 20 and came up with a national strategy to end child marriage. In Malawi, young activists lobbied members of parliament to rise the age of marriage to 18. The Act was passed in February 2015.

The hopes are still strong. Support groups are collaborating in creating pressure against the enactment of the 2016 Act. The country’s NGOs are working day and night to create awareness against child marriage. The few who are actively participating are Ain o Salish Kendro (ASK), Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), BRAC, Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association (BNWLA), Bangladesh Mohila Parishad (BMP) and Violence Against Women Committee (VAWC). Bangladesh is also a member of the South Asian Initiative to End Violence Against Children (SAIEVAC), which adopted a regional action plan to end child marriage. The regional action plan is being implemented from 2015 – 2018.

Laws specify an age of marriage so that boys and girls marry only when they are physically and mentally ready for it. It also protects them so that they are free from any sort of pressure. The provision in the draft of the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2016 will not only complicate the development but undermine the rights of the female child. Lowering the legal marrying age will make it smooth for the ones who practice it. Empowerment of Women is necessary for the overall development of country. If they are restricted at the onset, then misfortune awaits for the generations ahead of us.

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