A Blueprint for Ending Child Marriage

When a young girl is pushed into marriage, the damage can last long after her wedding day. Research shows that girls who marry before the age of 18 receive less schooling than those who marry later, face a higher risk of domestic abuse, and suffer a lifetime of adverse effects on their physical and mental wellbeing.

Yet child marriage continues to be a common practice in the developing world. According to UNICEF, there are more than 700 million women alive today who were married before they turned 18. One in three women aged 20-24 were married or in a union while still a child.

What can be done to end this harmful practice? Bangladesh offers both a possible blueprint and a cautionary tale.

Today, Bangladesh has the world’s highest rate of marriage among girls under 15, and violence against Bangladeshi women is on the rise. Unfortunately, legal efforts to protect women and girls by criminalizing aspects of child marriage face significant obstacles, due to the prevailing political culture, the accommodation of religious extremists, and the persistence of gender bias.

The existing law penalizing aspects of child marriage – the Child Marriage Restraint Act (CMRA) of 1929 – dates to the British colonial period. The law stipulates terms of imprisonment or a fine for anyone who “contracts,” “solemnizes,” or arranges a marriage with a girl under 18. But, with some recent exceptions, it is frequently ignored and rarely enforced.

In the last three years, various drafts of a bill to give the law more teeth have been proposed. But the proposals focused on criminalizing facilitation or participation; none would invalidate child marriage itself. Individuals who officiate at child marriages or adults who take a child bride may violate the law, but the marriage itself would remain legal.

Each version of the bill has kept open this legal route for child marriage. Moreover, while the drafts have introduced stiffer penalties for perpetrators – and imposed greater responsibility on officials to take action – they have also created more space for exceptions. Marriage below the age of 18 is already permitted in Bangladesh by personal laws based on religion. The newly passed replacement of the CMRA – the CMRA 2017 – allows for exceptions in “special cases,” which remain entirely undefined.

That “special cases” clause was earlier interpreted by an official to mean in “for the sake of honor” – which presumably could include pregnancy following a rape – as long as the marriage has a court’s approval and the parents’ consent. Such a framework could ultimately erode legal protections – such as the right to consent – that girls have had for almost a century.

Despite these legal challenges, Bangladesh’s experience may offer hope. Notwithstanding the current child marriage concerns, Bangladesh has made important strides in improving the lives of girls and women during the last three decades. A generation ago, it was unusual for girls to attend primary school. Today, thanks to a broad political consensus on the value of female education, gender parity has largely been achieved in both primary and secondary schooling.

Even on the issue of child marriage, political developments have been encouraging. As two of us have noted elsewhere, at the July 2014 Girl Summit in London, the Bangladeshi government said it would aim to eradicate marriage by girls below the age of 15 by 2021. Targeting marriages with such young girls may be the right approach. Much work remains, and pressure to make good on these commitments is mounting. But there seems to be at least some will to act.

When it comes to persuading some of the Bangladeshi public, however, progress has stalled. Communities in South Asia often value girls less than boys because of limited opportunities to acquire skills and access salaried jobs. Early marriage is often considered the best option to secure a girl’s future. But the constraints placed on young women originate from the patriarchal norms that dominate the community and the household.

Conservative values that oppose giving adolescent girls and young women full control over their life choices are pervasive, because family “honor,” for them, is closely tied to the perceived “purity” of their daughters and brides. An unmarried adolescent girl’s reputation must be carefully protected, because its loss could damage her family’s social standing considerably. The government has often alluded to this line of reasoning to justify proposed reforms to the child marriage law. The “special cases” clause in CMRA 2017 could be an attempt to pre-empt “patriarchal resistance” or a backlash from religious extremists.

But the social cost of allowing exceptions may be too high. Bangladesh’s success in empowering girls and ending child marriage will hinge on strengthening the rule of law by closing existing loopholes. Crucially, such actions must be accompanied by sustained social campaigns and targeted educational programs that convince the public to support the goal, while empowering girls themselves.

As the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Angélique Kidjo has said, “long-lasting, fundamental changes come from within communities, and they depend on engaging both mothers and fathers in finding solutions that make a difference in their daughters’ lives.” Some recent successful efforts to address child marriage do precisely that.

Sajeda Amin is a senior associate at the Population Council in New York City.

M Niaz Asadullah is Professor of Development Economics at the University of Malaya, in Kuala Lumpur, Research Fellow at the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, and Visiting Fellow at the Center on Skills, Knowledge, and Organization Performance (SKOPE), the University of Oxford.

Sara Hossain is a lawyer at the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and an honorary executive director of the Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust.

Zaki Wahhaj is a senior lecturer at the University of Kent.