Earlier this week, the Bangladesh government passed a law that would allow for child marriage to occur in ‘special circumstances’. While there are many laws and acts that get enacted every day all over the globe, not all can claim to have influence over the lives of 30 million girls.
While the government maintained the legal marriage age for children (18 for girls and 21 for boys), there is a new provision in the Act which would allow child marriage to take place, with parental consent and with permission from the courts, if it is deemed in the ‘best interest of the underage female or male’.
The consent or permission of the child, however, is not required, and no definition of these ‘special circumstances’ have yet been given.
Highest child marriage rates in South Asia
Bangladesh has had one of the highest rates of child marriage globally, and certainly in South Asia. For years, organisations like Plan International have worked alongside government and communities to lower the rates of child marriage. The government even committed to end all child marriage by 2041. But how are we meant to achieve these goals when we will allow child marriage to occur in certain circumstances?
Many believe that if a girl bears a child out of wedlock or is involved in sexual relations at a young age, she will be shunned or at risk if she is not able to marry. Members of Parliament have stated that the allowance of marriage in some circumstances will ensure they are not being ostracised or discriminated in their communities.
Understanding social and cultural contexts is important, but so are basic human rights. The Act does not require the consent of the girl or boy in order for a marriage to occur. Why not ask the child? Why is his or her consent not important, or even considered?
Education is key
As one of the leading organisations committed to ending child marriage, we know that a lack of education is one of the largest drivers of change. Families, guardians, and members of the community often do not know or understand the risks and consequences that child marriage has on the life of a girl, or a boy.
The previous law enabled us to work with communities to prevent and stop child marriage. Working throughout the country, Plan International has successfully stopped some 2,000 child marriages in the last three years alone, and has reached around 700,000 young people who should be able to say no to marriage. .
We must empower young people
The empowerment of young people, particularly girls, has been fundamental in addressing this ongoing problem.
The future of Bangladesh is vested in its young people. Let us not write the future with our old hand and mind.
Children in Bangladesh established groups called the Wedding Busters, which target parents considering marriage for their children and inform them of the risks and consequences. With the support of the old law, the Wedding Busters were empowered to alert authorities if an illegal marriage was about to take place.
In some of our working areas, we saw a drop in child marriage from 70 per cent to just 20 per cent. We believe that when young people take action themselves, their attitudes change and, with that, the mindset of the future generation also changes. We have also seen local Government officials champion and support these young people. Together they are a potent force for change.
Children must demand their rights
We must empower girls and boys to demand that their rights be realised. We must not let adults or the courts to become a barrier to a child’s health, development, future and potential - regardless of their good intentions.
The future of Bangladesh is vested in its young people. We have seen young people take action to change things for the better.
This law has the ability to change the future of 30 million girls in our country. Let us not write the future with our old hand and mind, a future that we will not even live to see.
They must have a say in their future. We must not continue to decide for them.