(London) – The Bangladesh government should move quickly to adopt regulations to limit the harms of a new law that legalizes child marriage, Human Rights Watch said today. On February 27, 2017, the Bangladesh parliament approved a law that permits girls under age 18 to marry under “special circumstances,” with permission from their parents and a court. There is no minimum age for these marriages.
This law is a devastating step backward for the fight against child marriage in Bangladesh, which has the highest rate of child marriage in Asia, and one of the highest rates in the world, with 52 percent of girls married before age 18, and 18 percent married before age 15. Under the previous law, the legal age of marriage was 18 for women and 21 for men, with no exceptions.
“The focus now must be on containing the damage caused by Bangladesh legalizing child marriage,” said Heather Barr, senior researcher on women’s rights at Human Rights Watch. “Nothing can change the fact that this is a destructive law. But carefully drafted regulations can mitigate some of the harm to girls.”
Donors, diplomats, the United Nations, civil society, and activists fought to defeat the law. Now that the law has been passed, however, the government should ensure that the provision permitting child marriage will be used rarely and carefully.
While Bangladesh’s previous law setting marriage age for girls at 18 was widely ignored, the government in 2014 pledged to end child marriage before the age of 15 by 2021, and to end marriage before the age of 18 by 2041. It committed to develop a national action plan setting out how the government would achieve those goals, but has not yet done so.
The government has previously said that the goal of legalizing child marriage in “special circumstances” is to respond to situations involving “accidental or unlawful pregnancy” of unwed girls. Bangladesh has not done enough to help adolescent girls avoid unwanted pregnancies, such as ensuring access to information and services on reproductive health and sexuality.
In a 2015 report, Human Rights Watch found serious gaps in access to information about family planning, and access to contraception for young people in Bangladesh.
The government should move swiftly to draft regulations setting out the circumstances in which children under 18 can marry, and the standards judges should use when considering requests to authorize child marriages. The government should draft these regulations in close consultation with organizations working on child marriage and on children’s rights, many of which have decades of experience helping girls at risk. The regulation should be narrowly limited to truly protect the best interests of the child. It should also ban all marriages before the age of 16; interpretations of international law say that marriage before the age of 16 should never be permitted under any circumstances.
The regulations should require that a social worker be assigned to each case, to assist the judge and to follow through with services and support for girls. Before approving a child marriage, the judge should confirm that girls seeking to marry have been offered comprehensive services, including help continuing school, social service support for them and their families, and comprehensive reproductive health information and services.
Judges, along with social workers, should interview girls outside the presence of their family and intended husband and in-laws, to determine whether the girl is sufficiently mature to make this decision and genuinely wishes to marry based on fully informed consent. When judges do approve child marriages, the girl who will marry should be linked with social and health services responsible for maintaining regular contact with her to ensure that she receives reproductive health care and to address any difficulties she faces after marriage. Judges and social workers should have specialized training to handle these processes.
Judges should also be trained and required to screen for cases of sexual violence, to ensure that the girl is not a victim of rape. Lawyers and experts in Bangladesh have raised concerns that this law could be used to force girls who have been raped to marry their attackers. Judges must be clearly instructed, by regulations, that under no circumstances may they permit this to happen, and that any indication that sexual contact was non-consensual should lead to a criminal investigation – and, of course, denying requests to approve the marriage.
“Judges are now the last line of protection against this law being used to force girls into marriage against their will, or even allow rapists to escape penalty by marrying their victims,” said Heather Barr. “The government should provide clear guidance for judges, so that this provision is used rarely and with great caution.”
The debate over adolescent pregnancy prompted by this law should also drive Bangladesh to fix problems with access to comprehensive sexuality and reproductive health services and information for adolescents. The government should ensure that all adolescents have information about family planning and access to contraception. If the government’s goal is to reduce adolescent pregnancy, it should have all schools teach practical lessons about family planning, make it easy for young people to obtain contraception, and make abortion legal, safe, and accessible. At present, Bangladesh permits a procedure called menstrual regulation, which can terminate a pregnancy up to about eight to 10 weeks after a missed period. Aside from this, Bangladesh permits induced abortion only when it is necessary to save a pregnant woman’s life. Bangladesh should remove criminal penalties for abortion.
“Girls at risk of unwanted pregnancy face real problems in Bangladesh, but the answer isn’t child marriage,” said Heather Barr. “The answer includes ensuring that schools provide the information adolescents need about sex, and that the health system offers reliable access to contraception and other health services for unmarried young people.”