Bangladesh’s parliamentarians have a crucial responsibility ahead of them: kill a proposed law putting girls at greater risk of child marriage, or buckle under political pressure. 

On November 24, the Bangladesh cabinet approved draft legislation that poses grave risks to girls by creating vague exceptions to the country’s ban on child marriage, and even punishing the victims.

The Bangladesh government is yet to take sufficient steps to end child marriage, in spite of promises to do so. Instead, in steps in the wrong direction, after her July 2014 pledge to end child marriage by 2041, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina attempted to lower the age of marriage for girls from 18 to 16 years old, raising serious doubts about her commitment.

Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, and the highest rate in Asia. Fifty-two percent of girls in Bangladesh marry before age 18, and 18 percent are married before they turn 15. Child marriage is deeply destructive to the lives of married girls and their families; it pushes girls out of school, leaves them mired in poverty, heightens the risk of domestic violence, and carries grave health risks for girls and their babies due to early pregnancy.

Ironically, the new draft law came out of a promise by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in 2014, to end child marriage. She pledged, by the end of 2014, to reform the law to set tougher punishments for child marriage; finalize a national action plan on how to end child marriage under age 15 by 2021, and end all marriage before age 18 by 2041.

Two years later, there is no national action plan, and while the draft law does set tougher penalties – including, in another wrongheaded move, a penalty of 15 days imprisonment and a 5,000 taka fine [US$63] for children who marry – it also weakens existing law by making some child marriages legal. The current law permits marriage after the age of 18 for women and 21 for men, with no exceptions. However, the new draft law reportedly says child marriage below age 18 will be permitted in “special circumstances, such as accidental or unlawful pregnancy.” The draft does not set any minimum age for such “exceptional” marriages.

This is a major step backward. Although Bangladesh’s law on child marriage was widely ignored, the existence of a strict law meant the focus was on enforcement. Weakening the law is a setback for the fight against child marriage, and sends a message to parents across the country that the government thinks child marriage is acceptable in at least some situations. 

It is also difficult to know just what is meant by “unlawful pregnancy.” It suggests the law could lead to a situation where girls who have been raped are forced to marry their rapist. 

The next step is for the draft law to go to the parliament, expected in the coming weeks. Outcry against the draft law in the Bangladesh press and civil society has been fierce. Bangladesh’s parliamentarians now have a crucial chance to stand up for girls, where the prime minister has failed to do so.