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Child Marriage in Bangladesh and Empowerment Initiatives


In South Asia, child marriage rates are the second highest in the world, with one-half of
all girls in the region married off before the age of eighteen (Asia Child Marriage Initiative, 7). A
major hot spot in particular is Bangladesh, which has the most cases of child marriage in South
Asia and fourth most prevalent in the world, with 66% of girls married before reaching the legal
age of eighteen and 32% of girls married by fifteen (Country Profiles: Bangladesh). These girls
are stripped of their voices; they are forced into becoming wives and mothers while losing access
to education and economic autonomy. Further, they become prone to health complications and
domestic violence (What is the Impact?). Yet, despite the risks, and both international and
national laws aimed at combatting these practices, the Bangladeshi government has been unable
to enforce these laws across the population, particularly in rural communities, due to cultural
practices and weak legal implementation.
In this paper, I will address the extent of this human rights violation and its major impact
on the lives of these girls, national and international laws that address the rights violated, and the
implications of cultural values which normalize the practice. Overall, within this framework, it is
obvious that the best policy recommendations to combat child marriage in Bangladesh include
promoting community involvement, investing more in girls education and economic
empowerment initiatives, and improving existing law enforcement mechanisms.
Extent of Child Marriage in Bangladesh and Right to Consensual Marriage
When Nargis, a 19 year-old Bangladeshi woman, was growing up, her dream was to one
day become a teacher. Yet, that dream was shattered after her parents arranged for her to be
married at the age of 16 to an older man from her same district in Central Bangladesh. According

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to Nargis, I was studying in grade 8 when child marriage shattered all my dreams. My first son
died. Now I have another son, but he is malnourished, (Asia Child Marriage Initiative, 17).
The practice of child marriage is a major human rights problem in Bangladesh that is
extremely harmful for millions of Bangladeshi girls. At the basic level, child marriage refers to
the legal or customary union between two people, of whom one or both spouses are below the
age of 18, (Child Marriage in South Asia, 7). While the practice thus applies to both genders, it
largely affects females, due to the patriarchal system that exerts influence over large parts of
South Asia. Further, the practice is often forced upon girls, since they are too young to give full
consent or voice their concerns, while facing social or economic pressure by their communities
to go through with the affair. In Bangladesh, poverty is especially widespread, and the country
ranked 146 out of 187 countries according to the 2011 United Nations Development
Programmes Human Development Index. As a result, girls are often considered economic
burdens (Child Marriage in Southern Asia, 7), with 70% of girls married off in rural areas and
53% in urban centers.
Child marriage violates a range of human rights, specifically the right to consensual
marriage. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) Article 16,
marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses, and
recognizes that this applies only for men and women of full age. In addition to the UDHR, the
International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and International Covenant on
Civil and Political Rights include similar necessities in terms of marriage rights.i Thus, the right
to consensual marriage is a basic principal of the International Bill of Human Rights, and has
also been legally recognized by Bangladesh, which acceded to the ICESCR in 1998 and the
ICCPR in 2000. However, the government also reserved the right to interpret the non-

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discrimination clauses of Article 2 and 3 of the ICESCR within the context of their national
constitution and domestic laws, thus limiting the scope of their international treaty obligations.
Further, Bangladesh is a dualist system, and thus requires international treaties to be incorporated
into domestic law before having any legal effect.
Another international instrument that addresses this right is the Convention on the
Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)ii, which was acceded by
the government in 1984 and states in Article 16 the right to consensual marriage and that the
betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect. However, reservations were
attached to Article 2iii and Article 16(1)(c)iv of CEDAW, as they conflict with Sharia law based
on Holy Quran and Sunna, (Conventions and Treaties Ratified). While it is important to
acknowledge cultural difference and Islamic values, the state has invoked culture to justify their
lack of commitment to human rights principles. Particularly, under Muslim personal law, the
marriage of a female child is permitted at the age of 14 years (Blomgren 2013, 9) and thus these
reservations directly contradict international agreements on the right of the women and marital
rights. While Sharia law exerts much influence throughout the Muslim world, the text supports
the notion that men as a group are the guardians of and superior to women as a group (Naim
1990, 393) and should not be adopted so literally. Instead, it should be viewed as a religion and
compliment to human rights.
The Convention on the Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and
Registration of Marriage also specifically recognizes the right of marriage as stated in the
UDHR, and in its preamble reaffirms that all states take measures in eliminating completely
child marriages and the betrothal of young girls before the age of puberty. It was ratified by
Bangladesh in 1998. However, once again, it severely limited the effect of the convention by

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creating reservations on Articles 1 and 2 in so far as they relate to the question of legal validity
of child marriage, in accordance with the Personal Laws of different religious communities of the
country (Blomgren 2013, 18). v By having personal laws trump international law, the
government has perpetuated child marriage practices and undermined international norms
regarding marriage.
Right of the Child and Right of Education
Besides the right to consensual marriage, child marriage also violates the rights of the child and
their right to education. In Bangladesh, investment in girls education is extremely devalued once
she is married, and thus only 47% of females attend secondary school (Child Marriage in
Southern Asia Policy Options, 7). As a result, these girls become economically dependent, as
they are denied the necessary educational opportunities to make their own living. Thus, they face
social isolation, poverty, and are trapped in their marriage since divorce is looked down upon
(Child Marriage in South Asia, 15).
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is the main human rights body to set
explicit standards and special actions to protect childrens rights. While marriage is not directly
included, the text overall addresses the childs right to education and survival, and according to
Article 1, a child means every human being below the age of eighteen years which aligns with
UDHR Article 16 in terms of what full age constitutes as. Therefore, child marriage is an
obvious violation of this body. Further, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which
monitors state compliance with the CRC, has relayed concern of child marriage weakening girls
status, health, and access to rights (Child Marriage in South Asia, 24). The CRC was signed and
ratified by Bangladesh in 1990, yet without having any major effect over child rights.

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Specifically, the government established a reservation for the most basic right, Article 14(1)vi to
instead uphold domestic Islamic law (Conventions and Treaties Ratified).
Limitations of the Bangladeshi Law and Regional Instruments
Bangladesh prohibited child marriage in 1929, with the passage of the Child Marriage Restraint
Act. According to the law, the minimum legal age of marriage is 18 for females and violation of
this is punishable by law (Ferdousi 2014, 3). However, the punishment is extremely weak, with
violators only having to pay either a fine of BDT 1,000 ($13 USD) or spend one month in jail.
Legal enforcement is also faulty at the local level, especially since many officers refrain from
intervening since child marriage is often considered a personal or family issue, (Child
Marriage in South Asia, 21). These officers often lack the necessary training to understand the
harms of this practice and respond to community opposition when trying to stop it. Thus,
prosecution remains low, allowing those who participate to assume exemption from the law.
While the constitution does not explicitly reference marital practices, it does
acknowledge no discrimination on grounds only of religion, race caste, sex, or place of birth as
fundamental rights and advocates gender equality. In addition, Article 17 addresses the right of
free and compulsory education for all children. However, despite national legislation, as long as
the state cannot effectively implement their laws the practice will continue.
In Bangladesh, marriage is often based on religion and thus many govern it based on
personal, not national, laws. Especially as 89.7% of the population is Muslim, with smaller
Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian communities, each religion has separate laws recognized by the
state. Codified personal rules in Bangladesh have existed since the colonial period and have not
altered despite independence in 1971 and changes in womens and familial life. Personal laws
are considered an exception to the state legal system, despite violating aspects of statutory and

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international law, and are often used as justification for participating in child marriage (Blomgren
2013, 4). For example, codified Muslim personal laws do not explicitly discuss consent of the
parties as a requirement for marriage, (Child Marriage in South Asia, 15). While the
government tries to accommodate state diversity, this current dual legal system has paradoxically
penalized and encouraged child marriage.
At the regional level, Bangladesh is also a member of the South Asian Association for
Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which is dedicated to the economic, social, and cultural
development of South Asia. SAARC has pledged to protect children, with the 2009 Colombo
Statement on Children of South Asia recognizing child marriage as harmful traditional
practices (Child Marriage in South Asia, 32). However, the body has not established explicit
conventions against it. Thus, while member states clearly recognize the need to eliminate child
marriage, it lacks teeth to implement these policies or a regional court mechanism to prosecute
violators or hear complaints.
Policy Recommendations and Influence of Cultural Norms
Bangladesh has made some efforts to combat child marriage. For example, a 2004 law
that requires all births to be registered, to help determine a girls age at marriage, led to 53.6% of
children under five having birth registrations by 2009, as opposed to only 9.8% in 2006 (Child
Marriage in Southern Asia Policy Options, 7). In addition, the government instituted a stipend
program to encourage girls to attend secondary school and increase enrollment numbers.
However, despite these initiatives, the eligibility criteria, which include staying unmarried, are
not strictly enforced, and only 6% of students who did not oblige actually failed to receive their
stipend in 1997 (Khandker, Pitt, Fuwa, 23). While the government has made an impact, more
radical and effective policy recommendations must be instituted to actually deter this practice.

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Since child marriage is so embedded in cultural norms, like religious personal laws, it is
imperative to enact policies that can actually have long-term impacts. In particular, I advocate for
increasing community-wide engagement about this issue, investing in economic and education
initiatives, and strengthening national law enforcement mechanisms. Further, the state must
eliminate current treaty reservations that inherently legitimize this human rights violation.
Child marriage in Bangladesh, specifically rural communities, is deemed socially and
culturally valid. Parents endorse their children being married young to preserve their honor and
protect their chastity with parents who delay marriage looked down upon by their
communities. Further, since women are valued only for their roles as wives and mothers due to
cultural norms of womanhood, it is not considered worthwhile to delay their primary role.
Delaying marriage can also trigger sexual abuse of girls in the public sphere, and thus, according
to a Bangladeshi religious leader, parents are very scared about that and dont want their
daughters to continue studying, so they get them married, (Asia Child Marriage Initiative, 17).
Marrying young also lowers the cost of dowry, a socially degrading custom where brides parents
provide gifts to the groom (Child Marriage in South Asia, 20).
The most effective policy recommendations are thus those that challenge these root
causes of child marriage. Specifically, advisable methods include economic empowerment and
educational initiatives to combat deeply held cultural assumptions that belittle womens rights.
These initiatives must also address the negative consequences of child marriage at the
community-level. In rural communities where women are marginalized, policymakers should
institute interventions, in partnership with non-governmental organizations and community and
religious leaders, to educate families on the importance of delaying marriage, keeping girls in
school, and encouraging womens economic involvement. Since poverty is one of the main

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causes of child marriage, encouraging women to pursue employment opportunities will allow
them to be more financially independent while escaping the poverty trap that keeps them
dependent on their husbands (Child Marriage in Southern Asia, 8). One way to achieve this
economic autonomy is by encouraging participation in microfinance initiatives, with
organizations providing small-scale loans to women to create their own business (Bangladesh
Microfinance Country Profile 2006, 3). This practice has also had a positive impact on political
participation, with improved access to government programs (Kabeer 2005, 18). Thus, women
can make an income, challenge societal expectations of being confined to the household, and not
be viewed as financial burdens. They then can encourage their daughters to do the same, as
opposed to getting married, overall encouraging a cycle of empowerment, not one of poverty.
In addition, because of the importance of culture, an alliance with community and
religious leaders is essential for creating systematic change and raising awareness about the
consequences of child marriage. Thus, community mobilization is key for creating long-term
change. To achieve this, organizations should encourage small-scale dialogue, with both men and
women engaged, about the benefits of delaying marriage. In some communities, youth groups
also exist, with children given the voice to express discontent. According to 13-year-old
Tamanna, We have an organized system; we have a list of girls who are potential child brides
and we check on them (Asia Child Marriage Initiative, 12). These youth groups should also
include life-skills training, with a focus on sexual education and contraceptive use, and NGOs or
the government should be willing to provide resources to train professionals to educate children
about these matters (Child Marriage in Southern Asia, 12). By promoting community
involvement, cultural acceptance of early marriage will be challenged and girls will have a forum
to combat this degrading practice.

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Investing more in girls education is another key policy for combatting early marriage.
While the stipend program has already been instituted, more drastic measures are key, such as
allocating resources to schools to actually provide a quality education to girls, and promoting reenrollment of girls who dropped out for marriage. Parents should also be specifically targeted, as
they wield the power in terms of whether their child can stay in school or not (Ferdousi 2014, 6).
The main issue regarding the stipend program is that it supports the assumption that girls are
financial liabilities to their families, and therefore can only pursue education if their parents
receive economic compensation for it. To challenge these notions, awareness campaigns should
be instituted to confront gender biases. Additionally, to make education more accessible, I
propose that the government create laws that make secondary education compulsory, as currently
children are only obligated to attend primary schools. Other measures include making schools
more accessible in rural communities, including lessons about the negative repercussions of child
marriage in the curriculum, and investing more in the number of teachers to curb dropout rates
(Child Marriage in Southern Asia, 8).
While these policies are vital at the local level, national measures are needed as well, as
governments are accountable for violations of womens and girls rights as a result of child
marriage, and must offer legal remedies and ensure that they are accessible where these rights are
violated, (Child Marriage in South Asia, 24). Even though Bangladesh has signed various
human rights treaties, and has national acts against child marriage, the law enforcement
mechanisms for actually promoting these laws must be strengthened to be effective in curbing
the practice. Firstly, the current punishments for violating the Child Marriage Restraint Act are
extremely weak, and more stringent penalties should be created to actually deter people from
engaging in child marriage. Prosecution of involved parties must also be strengthened, and can

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be achieved if the government improved law enforcement training and included child marriage
education in these trainings (Asia Child Marriage Initiative, 32). Instead of officers turning a
blind eye to the practice, they need to become more sensitized and have the adequate resources
to effectively intervene and better impose the law.
Lastly, the state should abolish its current reservations on international treaties, and
instead standardize personal laws to comply with international and national laws. While the
government may argue their cultural values do not align with universal international standards,
no child deserves to be forced into marriage. No child deserves to face sexual abuse, dropout of
school, and lose their rights. Thus, Bangladesh should adopt a cultural reinterpretation approach
to rights and align their cultural values with these modern human rights norms (Chamberlain
2014).
In order to effectively curb child marriage in Bangladesh, the government, law
enforcement officers, NGOs, and community and religious leaders must come together, with one
overarching agenda, to challenge preexisting cultural norms that promote the practice.
Communities that continue to engage in child marriage are not only violating state law, but are
going against international bodies and rights, specifically the right to consensual marriage, that
explicitly condemns it. However, while illegal, it continues to remain widespread in Bangladesh
due to a combination of cultural traditions and socio-economic factors that support a system of
patriarchy and overall marginalize girls, particularly in poor and rural communities. While it may
be difficult to completely eliminate child marriage in the country, preventing at least one
betrothal will allow a girl to be free: to be a child and pursue her dreams. If the Bangladesh
government and non-governmental institutions truly commit to the policy recommendations
included, and better enforce their own laws, these children will be saved from the multitude of

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human rights violations that they currently face. Nargis was unable to achieve her dream of being
a teacher; these laws must be enforced so future girls will not experience the same fate.

Bibliography
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i International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 23:


1. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the
State.
2. The right of men and women of marriageable age to marry and found a family shall be recognized.
3. No marriage shall be entered into without the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
4. State parties to the present Covenant shall take appropriate steps to ensure quality of rights and responsibilities
of spouses as to marriage during marriage and at its dissolution. In the case of dissolution, provision shall be
made for the necessary protection of any children.
International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights Article 10(1): The widest possible protection
and assistance should be accorded to the family, which is the natural and fundamental group unit of society,
particularly for its establishment and while it is responsible for the care and education of dependent children.
Marriage must be entered into with the free consent of the intending spouses.

ii Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women Article 16(2): The betrothal
and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be
taken to specify a minimum age for marriage and to make the registration of marriages in an official registry
compulsory.

iii Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women Article 2: State Parties
condemn discrimination against women in all its forms, agree to pursue by all appropriate means and without
delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women

ivConvention to Eliminate all Forms of Discrimination Against Women Article 16(1)(c): The same rights and
responsibilities during marriage and at its dissolution

v Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages Article 1: 1.
No marriage shall be legally entered into without the full and free consent of both parties, such consent to be
expressed by them in person after due publicity and in the presence of the authority competent to solemnize the
marriage and of witnesses, as prescribed by law.
2. Notwithstanding anything in paragraph 1 above, it shall not be necessary for one of the parties to be present
when the competent authority is satisfied that the circumstances are exceptional and that the party has, before a
competent authority and in such manner as may be prescribed by law, expressed and not withdrawn consent.
Article 2: States Parties to the present Convention shall take legislative action to specify a minimum age for
marriage. No marriage shall be legally entered into by any person under this age, except where a competent
authority has granted a dispensation as to age, for serious reasons, in the interest of the intending spouses.

vi Convention on the Rights of the Child Article 14(1): State parties shall respect the right of the child to
freedom of thought, conscience, and religion