Bangladesh Fights Child Marriage—by Changing the Definition

A proposal to lower the legal age for girls to wed has drawn scorn from human rights groups.

A young bride on her wedding day in traditional Bangladeshi wedding attire. (Photo: Hasibul Haque Sakib/Flickr)

Oct 30, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Formerly based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Joseph Allchin has written for Financial Times, The Economist, Foreign Policy, and others.

Two months ago, Rashida Khatun, 13, was invited to a wedding. The daughter of a farm laborer, she didn’t know until she got there that the wedding she’d been invited to would be her own.

Like 29.1 percent of female Bangladeshis, Khatun was married before the age of 15. Now Bangladesh, with among the world’s highest rates of child marriage (depending on how it’s defined), is addressing the issue in a way that has raised eyebrows among human rights advocates: A government body in Bangladesh has proposed lowering the legal age at which people can marry, from 18 to 16 for girls and from 21 to 18 for boys.

Khatun explained through an interpreter that during a recent school holiday, she was forcibly married to the head of her school’s governing board, a 32-year-old businessman named Abdur Rahim, and taken to his house. She was held there for weeks. “He didn’t torture me,” she said. “I was doing all the housework—why would he?”

Rahim had another wife and children, Khatun said, but apparently saw Khatun at school and decided he wished to have her at his disposal. After a journalist overheard her tale in a tea shop and wrote about it, police searched for Khatun and Rahim hid her. Khatun escaped, but Rahim remains at large.

“He’s rich and we are poor; that’s just the way it is,” Khatun explained in a whisper, her face lowered. Her husband raped her three times a day, she said. In Bangladesh, marital rape is not a crime. Many laws, as Khatun suggested, are selectively enforced, depending on the social status of the accused.

The proposed law change came just two months after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina promised to enact measures to reduce and eventually end the practice of child marriage. During a “Girl Summit” in London in July, Hasina promised, among other things, that by 2021 there would be no more marriage of girls younger than 15 in her country.

Bangladesh has ratified treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which invalidates child marriage, yet it maintains discriminatory laws.

Sheepa Hafiza, director of gender, justice, and diversity at the NGO BRAC (formerly Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee), believes the government is “afraid of a public reaction against it” if it enforces the convention. “Extreme religious groups will react against [the government], so this is a worry,” she said.

The penalty for marrying a minor in Bangladesh is a fine of about $13. The cabinet’s proposal to lower the age comes with an increase in the penalty. Opponents of the change, though, feel that with the current low rate of conviction, “changing the definition of child marriage will only harm girls,” said Aruna Kashyap, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch’s women’s division in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has excelled in indicators such as reducing maternal mortality and increasing female school enrolment, outperforming richer countries such as India and Pakistan. Hafiza said that partly as a result of this progress, child marriage “was previously never addressed directly.” The thinking was that by working on education and reducing fertility, the practice would diminish. But Hafiza now acknowledges that “it’s a multidimensional problem.”

Poverty pushes many parents in Bangladesh to marry off their daughters at a young age. According to BRAC, child marriage occurs in 80 percent of poor families, compared with 53 percent of those who are better off. When girls living at home are sexually harassed by members of the community, Hafiza said, many parents believe that marriage will ensure their children’s protection. On the contrary, she said, statistics show that these unions include the most spousal abuse.

Some have argued that attempts to stifle child marriage are the result of unwelcome and hypocritical Western influence. “Most countries around the world, currently, allow legal marriage at 18 but with parental consent at 16,” wrote one member of the Facebook group Bangladesh Studies Network.

Meanwhile, as long as Rahim is free, Khatun remains wary. She says he has threatened her and her family and feels he enjoys protection as a result of his status. “I don’t blame the police—they rescued me,” she said. “But what can they do against someone like him? I am not angry—I’m scared.”

CORRECTION [Nov. 2, 2014]: A previously published version of this article stated that Aruna Kashyap was based in Dhaka.