“Girls have no ground to stand on.” Those were the words of the leader of a local women’s nongovernmental organization (NGO), describing the gender discrimination that affects every aspect of girls’ lives in Bangladesh.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been celebrated for promoting women’s empowerment in everything from education to maternity leave. But at her request, parliament is considering legislation that would allow child marriage for the first time in decades. The current law bans marriage before the age of 18 for women and 21 for men, with no exceptions. The new law would permit marriage of girls below age 18 in “special circumstances, such as accidental or unlawful pregnancy.”
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.
The prime minister argues that a girl pregnant outside of marriage must be allowed to marry, or she and her child will face discrimination in accessing services. NGOs have opposed the exception and asked the government to find other ways to protect these children from discrimination. Hasina has responded by lashing out at NGOs: “They just stay in Dhaka and don't have any idea about the reality of society in rural areas.” This argument ignores the work NGOs have been carrying out for decades to prevent child marriage in villages. In contrast, the government has not gathered statistics about the prevalence of teen pregnancy or researched the difficulties facing unwed mothers and their children.
Activists are able to use the current law to intervene and stop child marriages. In villages across the country, NGOs raise awareness about the law, ensuring that families understand that it is not only illegal but also puts girls at heightened risk of health consequences including death, poverty, and domestic violence.
Since the introduction of the new proposed legislation, they say they have faced greater resistance from community members who cite the draft law as evidence the government thinks child marriage is acceptable in some situations. This has left women’s rights activists feeling abandoned by the government.
Hasina has gained a reputation as a champion of women’s empowerment in part thanks to the work of NGOs. The minister of women and children’s affairs acknowledged this when urging both groups to work together because “the government cannot do everything alone.”
When critiquing NGOs, Hasina said, “Their responsibility is very limited. They are involved in NGOs to make some money. But we have the responsibility as long as we are in power.”
Responsibility to whom? Both Hasina and NGOs have a responsibility to women and girls, in rural and urban areas. To work toward a Bangladesh free of child marriage, Hasina should remove the provision in the draft law permitting marriage under the age of 18.
Heather Barr is a Senior Researcher, Women's Rights Division at the Human Rights Watch