NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Millions of girls are at risk if the Bangladeshi government goes ahead with a proposal to lower the age of marriage to 16, Human Rights Watch warned on Monday.
The impoverished South Asian nation has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, despite a three-decade-old law which bans marriage for girls under the age of 18.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government was now considering an amendment to the Child Marriage Restraint Act, which would also lower the age of marriage of men to 18 from 21.
"Setting the age of marriage for girls in Bangladesh at 16 would be a terrible step in the wrong direction," said Liesl Gerntholtz, HRW's women's rights director. "The rate of child marriage in Bangladesh is already off the charts.
Meher Afroze Chumki, Bangladesh's junior minister for women and child affairs, said no firm decision had been made yet.
"We will discuss the proposal in detail and whatever is suitable for society, we will do that based on a consensus," Chumki told Reuters.
"There are certain countries where even 14 years is allowed to get married. To avoid any illicit relations or living together, we will consider (changing) the law."
Bangladesh has the second-highest rate of child marriage in the world, after Niger, says the United Nations children's agency, UNICEF. About 74 percent of Bangladeshi women currently aged 20 to 49 were married or in a union before 18.
Human rights campaigners say child marriage triggers a series of violations that continues throughout a girl's life such as rape, domestic violence and forced pregnancies.
It starts with forced initiation into sex and on-going sexual violence, resulting in early and unplanned pregnancy, which may put her life or that of her child's at risk.
Girls married as children are often denied the chance to go to school and are isolated from society and forced into a lifetime of economic dependence as a wife and mother.
Yet the practice continues largely due to a combination of social acceptance and government inaction, say activists.
"Recent media reports indicate the prime minister's cabinet is considering a revision to the law to make 16 the minimum age of marriage for girls," HRW said in a statement.
"The proposed revisions would reverse stated government aims to reduce child marriage among girls," Human Rights Watch said.
At a July summit, Hasina pledged to take steps to reduce, and ultimately end, child marriage in Bangladesh by 2041.
She told the Girl Summit in London that she was committed to end marriage for girls under age 15 and reduce by more than one-third marriage among girls between ages 15 and 18 by 2021.
Additional reporting by Serajul Quadir in Dhaka. Editing by Ros Russell