Govt to consider lowering legal age of marriage

Girls’ “tendency to elope” at an early age has prompted the government to discuss the issue of lowering the legal age of marriage to 16 years, the junior health minister has said.

Published : 2 Oct 2014, 08:59 AM
Updated : 2 Oct 2014, 12:41 PM

“No decision has been taken yet. We are discussing it,” Zahid Maleque said on Thursday, “the prime minister is facing pressure from the rural areas to reduce the age (of marriage)”.

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The current legal age of marriage is 18 years when a girl is no longer a child. That is in keeping with the UN Child Rights Convention that Bangladesh ratified.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recently joined the London summit where ending child marriage and preventing forced marriage was accepted as a priority. Hasina extended her support to the cause.
Changing legal age means the government will have to depart from all international commitments to prevent child marriage.
Bangladesh is known for having one of the highest rates of child marriage in this region and that also contributes to its high incidence of maternal deaths.
But the Cabinet recently took a policy decision to discuss the issue of lowering the legal age of marriage, the junior minister told a policy dialogue of the ongoing health, population and nutrition sector programme (HPNSDP).
He said they put the issue on the table as the prime minister was facing “pressure from the rural areas ". With improvement in girls' education and empowerment, there is a growing tendency to elope, Maleque said.
“Then sometimes there is a need to marry them off early,” he said generating murmur among the audience that comprised development partners, donors, NGOs and government officials.
He, however, said the government would make the final decision after discussing the matter with all, including the civil society.

‘Very wrong step’

His comment surprised Dr Ishtiaq Mannan, Chief of Party (MCHIP) at Save the Children, who was present during his speech.

“It’s a very wrong step,” he told in immediate reaction.

“Even putting it on the table for discussion will send a wrong message across Bangladesh as well as throughout the world,” he said.

Dr Mannan said apart from health hazards, early marriage would create “larger social insecurity”.

“Boys and girls will not be mentally prepared for the marriage if they are married off at an early age. So it can create disharmony in the family resulting in violence and divorce,” he said.

“I am surprised how it can be put on the table for discussion,” he said.

“Early marriage contributes significantly to maternal mortality and disability. Their babies are often born premature and live with lifelong malnutrition,” he said.

He said the government could take different steps to ensure social security if it found eloping was a big problem.

“It needs a social system, awareness that will prevent them and also proper implementation of law so that none can marry before their legal age.”

Health Secretary M Niaz Uddin Miah, however, said it was not their proposal. The Ministry of Women and Children Affairs made the proposal, he said during his speech at the programme.

“It’s a concern for us. We have to think about it.”

“We have to sit together with the gynaecologists and development partners and organise a dialogue and send a recommendation whether the age should be 16 or 18,” he said.