Learning English, digital and leadership skills gave Modina the confidence to stop her marriage aged 15. Now shes supporting other girls to do the same. But has a 2017 law change made it harder to escape this crime?
Four years ago, 19-year-old Modinas future looked very different. Her family had decided it was time for her to leave education and get married. Having already seen the impact of underage marriage on her elder sister, who had a “miserable life”, Modina was determined to refuse and stay in school.
Today, a group of girls dressed in brightly coloured saris are sat in a small hut, in the Narsingdi suburb of Dhaka, listening intently to Modina. She is running todays education session, having been trained in leadership skills by the Edge Club – English and Digital for Girls Education – a British Council initiative offering girls the chance to develop their English and IT through peer-to-peer learning.
“How are we today?” Modina asks. The girls laugh and reply “wow!” before playing a game to practice their English.
The atmosphere in the hut, with its corrugated iron walls decorated with posters informing the girls how to stay safe online, eat healthily and say no to unwanted physical contact, is giggly and supportive as each girl shares her name, and something she likes.
“I was just a girl in the village,” Modina tells us, through a translator, after the class. “But since learning the leadership skills, I feel like I am counted and respected in the community.”
“I was in grade nine and my family wanted to marry me off,” she explains. “People had come to see me for the process of getting married. But I said no, I didnt want to get married and I stopped my marriage.”
Credit: Muhmmad Murtada, British Council
Though her parents respected her choice, Modinas decision has made her unpopular with her wider family. Yet having learned more about child protection and girls rights through her leadership training with Edge Club, Modina has been given the confidence to intervene for other girls in her community who face being married off while still underage.
“One of my neighbours was from a broken home and her parents wanted to marry her off,” she explains. “I tried to convince the parents that it was not a good thing to get married at such an early age. They were not convinced but when I told the lady at Edge she helped intervene so the marriage was stopped.”
Modina says she would not have had the confidence to take action if it werent for the skills shed developed at Edge Club. “What I now tell others girls is never say yes to child marriage.”
Child marriage is illegal in Bangladesh, yet its estimated that 52 per cent of girls there are married before the age of 18 – the highest rate of underage marriage in Asia.
For nine decades the law was governed by the British colonial 1929 Child Marriage Act, but was updated by the 2017 Child Marriage Restraint Act, which introduced stricter penalties for anyone convicted of the offence. The changes also include punishments for marriage registrars, who must provide more proof of age, and could lose their licence and be imprisoned for registering a child marriage.
“The good side of the law,” according to Professor Taslima Yasmin, a legal academic at Dhaka University, “is that it gives more authority to local government representatives and certain government officials to stop a child marriage.”
Yet the law remains controversial. It includes a “special provision” that legalises child marriage when it is “in the best interests of the minor, at the directions of the court and with consent of the parents or guardian of the minor”. There is no minimum age limit on the special provision.
Veteran feminist activist Shireen Pervin Huq, whose organisation Naripokkho has been campaigning for womens rights since 1983, was one of the many people who protested against the provision.
“Some people are defending the governments law change,” Huq explains when we met at the WOW Dhaka Festival, where she is speaking on a panel about whether women and men are equal under Bangladeshi law. “Theyre saying that when the family wants their child to get married underage they have to get permission from the court, so there are in-built checks and balances. But it doesnt work that way.”
Huq is concerned that by providing exceptions in which child marriage is legal, it will be harder for law enforcement to intervene to prevent a marriage.
“Local administrative officers have the power to intervene and stop the marriage if they know an underage girl or boy is getting married. But now if they go, maybe the family has permission from the court. They dont know whether to stop it. Once the marriage is solemnised, its too late.”
For Huq, the law also says “the principle [of child marriage] is okay and we have compromised on the principle that child marriage is harmful.”
She explains how a then-sitting minister “told me that her mother got married at 13 and they had no problems. In other words, there was nothing wrong with the provision. I said your mother getting married at the age of 13 cannot be a justification 70 years later to introduce such a provision with no age restriction at all.”
One of the problems Professor Yasmin has identified with the special provision is there is no clear guidance on when a marriage is in the “best interests” of the child.
In the run-up to the law being put in place, the government used the example of a young couple eloping and the girl becoming pregnant as a case when marriage was the “best interest”. But, as Yasmin explains, “we are saying that the court will decide the best interests of the child, yet there is no indication of how the court will decide that.”
“We need to see specific suggestions as to what considerations are going to be looked at in the court to allow such a marriage — how the court would come to the conclusion of what is in the best interest of the child.”
One concern is that the sRead More – Source