Laws are necessary for safety, security and welfare of the people from the point of view of 'social contract theory', which forms the basis of the state. All laws veer round this concept. So it is also in case of recently passed Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017 which was passed in the Jatiya Sangsad on February 27 last. Earlier laws in this regard were repealed and the new one was adopted.
The Act keeps the minimum marriage age at 21 years and 18 years for males and females respectively. But the Act (Section 19) has made a provision for marriage below the permissible age under 'special circumstances.' This has created concerns among women activists and civil society leaders. Among dissenting voices, the Child Rights Advocacy Coalition in Bangladesh, a network of non-government developmental organisations (NGOs), at a press conference, urged the government to formulate rules of the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017 immediately to prevent its misuse. Taking advantage of 'special circumstances', this law will allow parents or in their absence, guardians to marry off boys or girls in their own interests with permission from courts before they reach the permissible age for marriage. Meanwhile, it was reported that the UNICEF representative in Bangladesh voiced concerns over the controversial law and its potential impact on children's wellbeing and opportunities.
In fact, over the last few months, the UNICEF, the UNFPA Bangladesh Human Right Commission, various women organisations and child rights activists have been raising objections against proposed incorporation of 'special circumstances' for allowing marriage below permissible ages. But all went in vain.
Marriage is the oldest institution in the history of human civilisation. It has ramifications on social and economic development. In modern age, various countries undertake different population policies to suit socio-economic development specific to their needs. Some countries encourage higher population growth and some others discourage it. Early marriage encourages higher population growth.
Bangladesh is concerned with large population given its size. With an estimated population of 160 million living in an area of 147 thousand square kilometres, Bangladesh has a population density of 1,088 persons per square kilometre, the highest in the world excepting a few island-states. The population is likely to increase to 234 million in 2051. Such a phenomenal increase will have obvious implications for its socio-economic development including high man-land ratio, reduced agricultural land, pressure on utilities and job market, and declining quality of education and health services, especially for the poor. The government is aware of it. Priority has been given in the plan documents to further reduction of population growth.
The 7th five year plan (FY 2016-2020) emphatically stresses gender equality, increasing the average age at marriage, stopping child marriage, enabling women to avoid unwanted pregnancies, encouraging late childbearing, prioritising women's decision over reproductive health and prodding all sorts of family planning methods. The plan deplores child marriage as it continues to be a serious problem, more so in rural areas. It also recognises high rate of malnutrition among children and women. All these and many more programmes are contained in section 10.4.3 under the title 'Population Programme in the 7th FYP'. In this respect also, marriage below the permissible age is contradictory and conflicting.
The demographic situation in Bangladesh suggests that children cover 35 per cent of population. Another 40 per cent is in the age group of 15-59 years and the rest is above 60 years of age. Many of the active labour force are unemployed. Research organisations have found a black hole in this demographic situation and released data which show that 11 million people of the age group 15-29 are neither in job market nor in education. This is an alarming signal for the economy - they contribute nothing to the economy and eat up the gains created by others. The relaxation of the minimum age limit and admissibility of marriages under permissible limit have put such boys into marriage trap. Don't forget, dowry is a social vice associated with marriages in Bangladesh which is more prevalent in rural areas.
Illegal pregnancy has been cited by some quarters to justify the 'special circumstances' for marriage below the permissible age. While violence, particularly sexual abuse, against women and girl children are widespread in today's society, such an argument is not tenable. Condoning sexual abuses and the resultant marriages will further aggravate the situation affecting moral and legal values of the society. A daily newspaper recently reported that a rapist had to marry the raped girl under societal pressure. But, after marriage, he murdered the woman. Experts suggest that forced marriages after the incidents of rape are not sustainable. There are many laws in the country to deal with violence against women and children, particularly sexual abuses. These can act as deterrents. But marriage after illicit relation, rape or pregnancy, is not an answer in a civilised society.
Relaxing the minimum age limit on the plea of 'special circumstances' and granting permission to any boy or girl to get married is unacceptable. It is not compatible with socio-economic policies of Bangladesh.
The writer is a former Secretary to GOB and an economist.
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