Laws not enough to stop child marriage
Goutam Mondal


 Fulzan was only 13 when she was married off to a man at least 30 years older than her. She conceived within a year, but the baby could not see the light of the world. The immature baby died in her mother's womb.

This sad memory still haunts the young woman from Bazra village of Ulipur upazila of Kurigram district. She became yet another victim of child marriage that has been a common practice in Bangladesh.

The story of Fulzan didn't end at this point. She once again conceived, but within three months her husband, failing to get Taka 5,000 as dowry, divorced her.

Marriage should always be a pleasant part of life. But for Fulzan it was a nightmare. That's why Fulzan is determined not to marry again.

"One afternoon I was playing with friends in my school playground.... My mother called me home to get prepared for marriage! It was an utter surprise to me," said Fulzan recalling the day of her wedding in 1999.

Now Fulzan is living with her parents. Although she is yet to be 16, she has already lost her beauty and charm of a teenage girl. She started greying, while her legs are fattened with fluid.

However, Fulzan's father, Fakar Uddin, is not so unhappy with the fate of her daughter. Rather it was a relief for the poor day-labourer to arrange the early marriage. "My three daughters were married off at the ages 12 to l6," he said without any hesitation. "It's usual here. We consider our daughters eligible for marriage when they cross 10." Like Fakar Uddin, another day-labourer Raisuddin did not miss the chance to arrange marriage for his 8-year-old daughter Hasi Begum with a 16-year-old boy.

Raisuddin, 50, of village Khoda in Sundarganj upazila of Gaibandha district, is hopeful that his daughter would be happy with the marriage. He does not care about the early age and immaturity of Hasi Begum.

"She will soon become mature," Raisuddin said, adding proudly "the bridegroom is good, they have enough money." Fakar Uddin, Raisuddin and thousands of other guardians do not know how they are throwing their minor daughters into a nightmarelike future. Ignorance and poverty have made them blind. Despite growing awareness about the negative effects of child marriage and steady progress in women empowerment in the country, the trend of early marriage continues as usual in disregard to law. A law prohibits marriage of a girl under 18. But nobody cares about it. During marriage registration, the guardians mention false age in papers to legalise the marriage. The Child Marriage Restraint Act was promulgated in 1929 restricting the marriage of under18 girls and under-22 boys. This law is applicable to the members of all religious groups.

Jahangir Alam 55, a marriage registrar of Pirgachha Upazila of Rangpur district said they have to record false age of brides in 60 percent cases. "What can we do if the guardians want it?" he questioned. Commenting on the trend of violating the law, Advocate Shahina Akhtar said, "There is no provision of cancelling a child marriage, but arranging such a marriage is punishable."

According to the law, all involved in arranging and registering a child marriage are punishable with minimum one month of imprisonment or a fine of Tk 1,000 or both.

"However, court can issue injunction order to stop such a marriage," said another lawyer. If a girl is forcibly married before being adult, she can challenge it before the court seeking its cancellation as per Muslim Marriage Cancellation Act of 1939.

But there are two conditions-she must seek the cancellation before being 19 years and must not have physical relations with the husband.

Neither Fakar Uddin nor Raisuddin know about this law nor want to comply with it. "I'll arrange marriage for my daughter whenever I wish. What will the government do if I fail to do it later?" questioned Fakar Uddin.

"This is not an exception. Not only Fakar Uddin, almost all rural poor think alike while arranging marriage for their daughters," said human rights activist Barrister Sigma Huda. She said, "It's nothing, but a sense of insecurity. The guardians always remain ready to arrange marriage for their daughters apparently to get rid of a burden."

Apart from suffering from a sense of social insecurity, Barrister Huda pointed out two other reasons - poverty, and ignorance about law and bad effects of child marriage. Many guardians do not know how much physical torture and mental stress make a young girl's life a hell due to early marriage with an aged man. "They think it's their duty to marry their daughters off as early as possible."

Dr Gaziur Rahman, a retired professor of Dhaka Medical College Hospital, said early marriage causes many complications to women, including loss of weight, abortion, death during childbirth and giving birth to underweight or dead babies. In most cases, minor girls could bear the physical stress of intercourse with their aged husbands, he said terming it "a matter of panic" for the girls.

Dr Rahman revealed another alarming information that about 8,000 young expectant mothers die every year in the country due to abortion. Terming the trend a social disease, Advocate Fostina Pereira of Ain-o-Shalish Kendra said this is another type of child repression. "The main reason is illiteracy and lack of social awareness," he observed.

According to a UNICEF-sponsored publication of the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, nearly half the women get married before they reach 18 years and one-fifth of them become mothers before being 15.

The situation in rural areas is more critical than urban areas. The average marriage age of women in rural areas is only 14.1 years while it is 19 years in urban areas, the publication said. "Most women are married off without their consents. Guardians do not take their opinions while arranging their marriage," the report further said.

Quoting a joint survey of government and ICDDR'B, the report says sometimes young girls involved in love affairs are being married off before being adult to prevent them from pre-marriage sexual relations.

The Women and Children Affairs Ministry had undertaken a project, which also included a campaign against child marriage at village and union levels. But the project saw a little progress, said an offficial preferring anonymity. Right to live a sound life is a fundamental right of all citizens, including the women. But child marriage has become a threat to this right causing early deaths to thousands of innocent young women in the country.


Source: The New Nation, Dhaka, March 12, 2002


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