Published in The Daily Star on Nov. 03 ::
In an open letter addressed to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina yesterday, Kofi Annan, as chair of The Elders, urged her to maintain the minimum age of marriage for girls at 18 years.
He said the independent group of global leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela in 2007 and working for peace and human rights was concerned on learning about the cabinet’s recent approval of the draft Child Marriage Restraint Act 2014, in which the minimum age has been lowered to 16 years.
“Such a change in legislation would be a step in the wrong direction as it would undermine efforts to reduce poverty and improve the welfare of girls and women across Bangladesh,” he said.
Bangladesh’s impressive progress in improving maternal and child health over the past decade will also be hindered, added the former United Nations secretary general.
Annan said child marriage is a major violation of human rights, holding back girls, families and communities and which has impeded achievements of six of the eight Millennium Development Goals.
Girls who are married and out of school do not contribute to Bangladesh’s economic development and prosperity, perpetuating cycles of poverty while the impact on their health and that of their family is severe, he said.
Complications in pregnancy and childbirth are among the leading causes of death in girls aged 15 to 19 in low- and middle-income countries; 90 percent of adolescent pregnancies take place within the context of marriage, he added.
Annan said where girls survive childbirth, they are at increased risk of injury and other complications, citing an example that 65 percent of all cases of obstetric fistula occur in girls under the age of 18.
Deaths among babies in their first few weeks of life are 50 percent higher among those born to mothers under 20 years of age than among those born to mothers in their 20s, he said.
Likewise, the risk of birth defects, developmental delays and long-term disabilities related to low birth weight are also higher for mothers under 20.
Annan also called upon Hasina “to work with civil society organisations, development partners and others as you develop and resource a national action plan to end child marriage”.
He ends saying, “Bangladesh has an opportunity to lead the way in efforts to address this global problem by demonstrating what can be done to end child marriage and secure a better future for girls.”