Despite assurances from the government, women rights activists appear worried over the new child marriage act.
They expressed apprehensions that the law may make sexual predators more reckless. The Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017, passed by Parliament on February 27, fixed the minimum age of marriage for men at 21 and women at 18, but allows exceptions in "special situations, in the best interest of minor girls, who can be married with consent of court and their parents".
According to the law, underage girls can be married if it is a love marriage, if the girl is pregnant, if she has no close relatives or if it is difficult to ensure her support and security. The law ran into consider opposition from women's rights and development activists and they urged the president not to sign the bill. Concerns about the law would be relieved once it went into effect, State Minister for Women and Children Affairs Meher Afroz Chumki had said.
On March 11, the day after the President signed the bill to make it law, the ministry held a meeting with representatives of several women's rights and development organizations. Exceptions for 'special circumstance' will put the lives of girls at tremendous risk and make sexual predators more 'reckless', said 'Nijera Kori' Coordinator Khushi Kabir.
"The law was made to suit the desires of guardians and society," she told bdnews24.com. "It was not made with the concerns of the girl child in mind." "Even if an underage girl falls in love willingly, she cannot sell land or cast a vote before the age of 18. She is underage, and not everyone is born mature. This is why they have guardians to help children resolve their problems." "If a child makes a mistake does that mean her life should be ruined? Should she have to give up her education, her livelihood, her dreams, her body? How can a young girl build a life for herself? Can her parents force her into marriage just because she made a mistake?"
Khushi Kabir said she fears the new law would encourage the influential to commit violence against women. "This law opens up opportunities for rapists, stalkers, those with power, and their sons. They can no longer be punished, even if they rape or abduct. It is handing them a blank cheque."
"Most people live in rural areas, and the poor live in slums. Parents of this class have little standing to speak up in society and are often unable to tell their stories. Often, even with our backing, they do not file cases and the perpetrators escape. If given this opportunity it will encourage these men and put the lives of women at risk."
"Everyone working on human rights, working with women, has objected to the law," said Khushi Kabir. "Are all of us wrong? If we have a misunderstanding, should they not take the time to explain it to us? This is risky and dangerous." The special exemptions are completely unacceptable, said Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust Executive Director Sara Hossain.
"It is incompatible with common law and creates the possibility of girls being married off to their rapists," she said. "The consent and decisions of the boys and girls involved must be respected," she said. "But the new law ignores them. This not only conflicts with British law, but also with Muslim law. Even Muslim law says every person of age can make their own decisions."
"Will a love marriage be allowed if the girl is pregnant? Would it be allowed if it is a forced marriage? Neither is rational. Who is giving consent and who is making the decisions? If the parents do not approve of the girl's relationship will her partner become a criminal? And, if the parents force a marriage, would that be acceptable?" "If a girl is raped, will she have to bear it for the sake of her parents' social standing? Will the girl's consent not be taken into account? It is difficult to see how this is coherent."
In addition, Sara Hossain announced she would be going to court over the law's perpetuating the difference in the minimum age of marriage between men and women, claiming it to be discriminatory. "There is still time to challenge the law on constitutional grounds," said Sara Hossain. "It can be done once the rules are finalized."
Bangladesh Women Lawyers Association Executive Director Salma Ali has also said she would file a case against the special provisions of the law. "We will file a case against the special clause of the law," she told bdnews24.com. "The day we discussed the act, the ministry secretaries told us it was an initial draft," she said about the child marriage law at a press conference on Saturday. "Can you imagine the mentality of the people who can write such things in a draft?"
"According to the special provisions, any couple who get married themselves, have a child or become pregnant can register the marriage with the consent of the guardians." "Another concern is that an underage child can be married off if they have no guardians. If a child does not have a guardian it is the responsibility of the state to support them, so the law comes into conflict with the constitution." Source: bdnews24.com
-Kazi Nafia Rahman
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