Fifteen months after pledging to end child marriage in her country, Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, seems determined to lower the age of marriage in Bangladesh.
In July 2015, at the Girl Summit in London, United Kingdom, Sheikh Hasina announced plans to end child marriage under 15 in Bangladesh by 2021, and to end child marriage under 18 by 2041. These commitments were very welcome given the high rate of child marriage in Bangladesh: 29 percent of girls are married by age 15, the highest rate in the world. By age 18, when they should be graduating from high school, 65 percent of girls are married. A horrifying two percent of girls marry by age 11. When Human Rights Watch researched child marriage in Bangladesh, the youngest bride I interviewed was 10 years old.
But within weeks of these promises, Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government proposed new legislation to lower the age of marriage for girls from 18, with no exceptions, to 16. After an outcry from activists and international donors, the government repeatedly offered public and private assurances the age would not be lowered, while behind closed doors moving ahead with a variety of proposals permitting at least some marriages below 18.
The latest news is that the draft law has been sent to the law ministry for review, and this version contains a provision permitting girls from age 16 to marry under undefined “special circumstances.” The media reported a month ago that the Prime Minister’s Office had already sent a circular to government officials stating that marriages of girls between age 16 and 18 could go ahead with consent from the girl’s parents or a court.
This is no way to end child marriage. In a country where most marriages are arranged by parents, permitting marriage at 16 with parental consent will mean that 16 becomes the de facto age of legal marriage. The many families that are marrying their daughters at ages younger than 16 will see this as the government condoning these marriages as well. So many Bangladeshi activists, parents, children, community leaders, and, yes, local government officials have worked tirelessly to try to reduce child marriage In Bangladesh. Their efforts now risk being swept away in a stroke of the prime minister’s pen.