By Ruma Paul and Nita Bhalla
DHAKA/NEW DELHI, March 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A new Bangladeshi law that lets under-age girls marry their rapists for "the greater good of the adolescent" may put more children at risk of sexual abuse, child rights groups said on Wednesday.
The impoverished South Asian nation has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, despite laws banning marriage for girls under 18 and men under 21. Legitimising marriage for young rape victims in the name of 'honour' does nothing to protect their body or rights, the advocates said.
"We are concerned that this new act could lead to widespread abuse, legitimise statutory rape, allow parents to force their girls to marry their rapists, and further encourage the practice of child marriage in a country with one of the highest child marriage rates in the world," said a statement from Girls Not Brides Bangladesh, a global alliance of more 650 charities.
The charities issued the statement two days after legislators amended Bangladesh's marriage laws to let under-18s wed in "special cases" for "the greater good of the adolescent" and with parental and court consent.
The child rights groups said the provision does not define "special cases" or "greater good" -- leaving the law open to interpretation, or to legitimise statutory rape.
The consent provision would also not prevent children being forced into marriage, said the alliance statement.
"The need to protect the 'honour' of girls who have become pregnant was widely cited by the Bangladesh government as the reason for this provision. However marriage is not the best way to protect adolescent girls and exposes them to greater harm."
A senior Bangladeshi government official denied the provision would lead to more abuse, saying lawmakers had taken into account the social context of life in a majority Muslim nation, and that protection mechanisms were in place.
"Considering the reality of our society, the special provision has been incorporated," said an official from the Women and Child Affairs Ministry, who did not wish to be named.
"No one will be able to marry without court permission."
Along with Niger, Guinea, South Sudan, Chad and Burkina Faso, Bangladesh is among the 10 countries with the highest incidence of child marriage, despite moves to strengthen law enforcement and toughen penalties against the crime.
According to data from Girls Not Brides, 52 percent of girls in Bangladesh are married before the age of 18 - the highest in South Asia -- compared to 47 percent in India, 37 percent in Nepal and 33 percent in Afghanistan.
Campaigners say girls face a greater risk of rape, domestic violence and forced pregnancy as a result of being child brides.
The girls are often denied the chance to go to school, 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, activists say.
Girls Not Brides said the changes to the law would effectively mean that Bangladesh has a "zero minimum age of marriage".
(Reporting by Ruma Paul in Dhaka and Nita Bhalla in New Delhi. Writing by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)