From looking at its government alone, one wouldn’t naturally surmise that Bangladesh had a gender problem. On the contrary: it seems unusually progressive, with the roles of prime minister, speaker of parliament and leader of the opposition all currently occupied by women. Rarely has the ‘glass ceiling’ been shattered with such force. It is puzzling, then, that this same country should have amongst the highest rates of child marriage and domestic abuse in the world. And yet this is the reality – and it may just be about to get even worse.
Child marriage in Bangladesh has technically been illegal since 1929, when the Child Marriage Restraint Act established minimum marriage ages of 18 for women and 21 for men. In practice, however, this is poorly enforced, with threatened punishments of a maximum of 1,000 Taka (£10.40) or one month in prison serving as a poor deterrent. Bangladesh has the fourth highest rate of child marriage in the world, with around 52% of girls marrying before the age of 18 and 18% before the age of 15. As if this wasn’t bad enough in itself, within the next few weeks parliament are due to review the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2016, a bill which may effectively do away with a minimum age of marriage altogether. While the current minimum ages would technically remain in place, the bill would have these completely disregarded in ‘special cases’, including ‘accidental’ pregnancies and other instances in which marriage would protect a girl’s ‘honour’.
The government have claimed that these new measures are designed to protect adolescent girls, preventing their ostracisation in the case of pregnancy without marriage – but this is short-sighted at best. Marriage in Bangladesh has been linked to withdrawal from education, to reduced job opportunities, and – most significantly – to an incredibly high likelihood of domestic abuse, with a 2011 survey by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics indicating that 87% of women had experienced this (77% within the past year). Again, this is technically illegal. After years of lacking a specific legal framework for dealing with domestic abuse, the Domestic Violence Prevention and Protection Act 2010 looked a lot like a turning point, including such measures as the appointment of enforcement officers and granting victims the rights to seek protection and compensation orders. However, as with child marriage, these seemingly beneficial measures bear little relevance to actual life in Bangladesh, to the extent that not a single conviction had been made five years after their enforcement allegedly began.
Tragically, many women who marry into abusive households will continue to face this treatment for the remainder of their lives – but this is not always the case. Bangladeshi women are increasingly responsible for initiating divorces, accounting for 72% of those granted in the capital of Dhaka in 2015. This has been attributed to positive trends regarding education and economic independence – changes which have not fully eradicated the stigma of divorce, but which have made both the process itself and the general prospect of independent living a whole lot less unthinkable for many women. This ties in with a number of positive changes to women’s prospects in recent years, extending far beyond the political elite, including increasing gender parity in both primary and secondary education and increasing numbers of women in paid employment and community leadership roles. While there are caveats even to these positive developments – the industries in which women dominate, namely domestic service and the garment industry, are both notoriously insecure and low-paid –, they do nonetheless suggest that many women are reaching a significant level of practical and financial independence, in some cases to the extent that they are actually able to break away from unhappy and abusive relationships.
Regardless, child marriage and domestic abuse remain incredibly widespread (and closely interlinked) issues, to which there are no simple solutions. Clearly, legislative measures alone are insufficient to bring about significant change, with those currently in place requiring far more rigorous and consistent enforcement before they can be considered even semi-effective. As the situation currently stands, the government have failed to provide adequate guidelines for implementation, many officials are unaware of their responsibilities, and women themselves are unaware of their rights. Proposed amendments to the Child Marriage Restraint Act contradict the prime minister’s stated intention (at the 2014 London Girl Summit) to end the marriage of girls under 15 and significantly reduce that of girls under 18 by 2021, instead conforming to the narrative that an unmarried mother is a shameful thing and prioritising cultural/religious ‘honour’ over individual women’s safety.
If there is one general lesson to be taken from the case of Bangladesh, it is that having women in leadership – though a very good thing in itself – does not by any means guarantee gender equality in a country as a whole. While women’s political, educational and occupational gains in Bangladesh should certainly be commended, for as long as child marriage and domestic abuse are still commonplace these gains will remain either minor or utterly meaningless for a large proportion of women – and, despite the government’s stated good intentions, forthcoming amendments to the law seem likely only to exacerbate these issues.