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Thursday, September 23, 2021
Mar 11 2021 - Bokul (pseudonym) is a 23-year-old married woman from Teknaf, Cox’s Bazar. She shared her troubling story in an interview for a recent study by Brac Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD). She is the fifth wife of her husband and has two daughters: a four-year-old and an eight-month-old. Recently, her husband decided to marry again. He wants to leave Bokul and is not willing to provide her with alimony. His actions are not unusual, as polygamy is a common practice among the local, as well as the Rohingya community in Teknaf. Bokul said that her husband kidnapped their eight-month-old daughter to intimidate her and stop her from claiming her rights as his wife.
Bokul got married seven years ago, but the marriage was not registered. She and her husband went to Cox’s Bazar, where she put her signature on stamp paper from a computer shop. This is known as “Kagoj er Bia” (stamp marriage/ affidavit marriage). There was no witness. This kind of marriage is not legal but socially acceptable. Bokul was unaware at the time that her marriage had to be registered. In the absence of registration, she cannot seek alimony. Unregistered marriages are a common occurrence in the area where she lives, partly because people lack proper knowledge about marriage registration. At the discussion organised by Brac, which included government education officials and local headmasters, unregistered marriages were discussed as a significant socio-legal phenomenon that needs to be addressed to protect the rights of women and children in the host communities of Teknaf and Ukhiya.
Under Bangladesh’s civil law, every marriage must be registered, and the legally married couple must get a marriage certificate, which is the main document to prove the legal status of the marriage. A marriage that is not registered is not legal and therefore, a woman’s marital status is not acknowledged. This creates scope for violence against women, as there are no legal bindings. From the BIGD field work in Cox’s Bazar, researchers found polygamy and underage marriages to be the most common reasons for domestic violence. Without the bindings of marriage registration, men can marry as many times as they want, without bearing any responsibility for their wives and children. Prevalence and social acceptance of unregistered marriages also encourage child marriage.
The discussions at the field level identified illiteracy as one of the key reasons why many people do not bother to register marriages. The value of registration in protecting women and children is not understood by the poor and illiterate individuals of that community. Negligence, which can be deliberate on the part of the bridegroom, is also an issue. The bridegroom and his family have clear incentives for not registering the marriage; the absence of documentary evidence makes it easy to dispute the marriage and avoid responsibilities.
Another issue is the need for birth registration. The government has made it mandatory to produce birth registration and the national identification card for marriage registration. While the system is designed to curb child marriage, if the societal attitude does not change, it may, in effect, increase the vulnerabilities by encouraging unregistered child marriage. As the host community, the local community in Teknaf was in a bind because birth registration was suspended from August 25, 2017, as many Rohingyas were trying to get Bangladeshi citizenship certificates. In some cases, people were taking advantage of this situation and promoting child and unregistered marriages, causing the numbers of both to rise. Birth registration for the Bangladeshi population in Teknaf has since been reopened once a writ petition was filed in the High Court by Nashreen Siddiqua Lina, a Supreme Court lawyer and resident of Cox’s Bazar, after which the High Court issued a rule asking why the failure of the birth registration programme in certain areas in Cox’s Bazar should not be declared illegal.
One of the crucial reasons for registering marriages in Bangladesh is to protect the social and economic status of women. The Bangladesh government, as well as many other NGOs, donors, and international institutions are using a variety of platforms to raise awareness and promote compliance with long-standing national laws and policies relating to marriage and family. But awareness among the local community in Teknaf has been found to be low and incentives for not registering the marriages to be high. While increasing awareness of the need for marriage registration has been an important part of legal rights programmes all over the country, it is still not universal.
Bokul shared that her husband did not give her any financial support for the last couple of years and that when she asked for money to buy food for their children, he physically abused her. This incident traumatised her as she was not able to get any legal or social support because she was unable to prove her marriage was legal.
At one point, Bokul decided that she would take matters into her own hands. She went to the local government representative and community leaders to ask for help. This action led her husband to kidnap their 8-month-old daughter. Bokul went to see the community leaders again. However, the second time around, they told her that since she already had two girls to support, losing one daughter would be beneficial in the future. They expressed that girls are a burden and have no financial use. The local police were unable to help since she had no proof of marriage.
The socially acceptable practice of “Kagoj er bia“, causes women like Bokul and children to suffer. Bokul had to run from door to door, seeking justice. After being rejected repeatedly, she visited the Brac legal aid office. The relevant officer called the local police station, but the legal authorities informed him that this was a complicated situation in the community because of the Rohingya crisis, and since Bokul did not have any legal marriage documents they could not help her immediately. They advised her to go to the court. Bokul broke down, saying that she just wanted her daughter back and that she was worried for her safety. At that point, the legal aid officer called Bokul’s husband and told him that what he had done was illegal. At some point in the conversation, the husband seemed to understand the consequences.
The case of Bokul illustrates that even when all the necessary laws exist, they may not have much effect on the lives of women and children for a variety of reasons. Legal actions are almost always complex and expensive, and the loopholes are abundant, particularly in cases where incentives are strong. Till today, marriage and family issues are dealt predominantly as social, not legal, matters. Thus, building mass awareness and creating grassroots activism and social capital may be more effective against child and unregistered marriages and violence against women and children. The government must recognise that having laws in place is just a first step. To protect women’s rights, it must work with grassroots organisations to gradually change the social and cultural norms and values that make women vulnerable.
Taslima Aktar is Research Associate, BIGD.
This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh
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