A Bangladeshi girl aged 15 dresses up for marriage in a village in this file photo. Bangladesh parliament recently passed new law allowing the marriage of girls under 18 in a country already ranked 8th in global child marriage index. (ucanews.com photo)
Women and rights activists have criticized the Bangladesh government for "weakening" the country's child marriage law and setting back decades of work to curb teenage pregnancy and maternal and infant mortality.
The Bangladesh parliament on Feb. 27 passed amendments to the Child Marriage Restraint Act, originally adopted during British colonial rule in 1929. The original law stipulates the marriageable age for men and women to be 21 and 18 respectively.
The new law, however, includes a provision that allows for the marriage of girls under the age of 18 in "special circumstances."
"If a minor girl, in some special circumstances, is married for her best interest with consent from the court and her parents, and in following appropriate procedures, then it will not be considered a crime under this law," the provision states.
Islamist groups have welcomed the changes, but women and rights activists saying it might be misused.
"Muslim family law allows polygamy and so a rich man will try to take advantage of poor girl and her family by misusing the law and legal system," said Rita Roseline Costa, convener of the Women's Desk at the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Bangladesh.
Despite being against the country's laws, Bangladesh has one of world's highest rates of child marriages and currently ranks 8th in global index of child marriages.
Girls Not Brides Bangladesh, the local affiliate of a global campaign to end child marriages, are gravely concerned by the changes to the law.
"We are afraid that having such a provision would be risky for both girls and boys and increase incidents of child marriage via the misuse of the law. In addition, it would create an adverse impact on women's health, education as well as their empowerment process," the group said in statement on Feb. 28.
"There is also a risk of increased domestic violence. The overall development targets and processes would be hampered due to undertaking family responsibilities at a [young] age," it added.
Rehena Begum, a garment worker married at the age of 14 in this 2014 file photo. Bangladesh has one of world’s highest rates of child marriages but the government has recently made changes to the country’s child marriage law allowing marriage of girls under 18 in “special circumstances." (ucanews.com photo)
Bangladesh Supreme Court lawyer, Fauzia Karim said that the government had passed the provision in the absence of an effective opposition. The ruling Awami League enjoys an absolute majority after the last national election in 2014 was boycotted by major opposition parties.
"It will have a dangerous impact on the lives of girls and women; they might be forced to marry rapists or sexual offenders responsible for making them pregnant," said Karim, who is president of the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association.
"Various NGOs, women and rights groups have contributed immensely in reducing child marriages in the country but the new provision threatens to wipe out all their achievements," she added.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina promised to end child marriage under the age of 15 years by 2021, and to end all marriage before age 18 by 2041, during the Girls' Summit in London in July 2014. Within months of the summit, however, the government tried to change the marriageable age for women to 16 but backed off after the move caused a massive backlash from women and rights groups.