Bangladesh’s discriminatory personal laws on marriage, separation, and divorce trap many women and girls in abusive marriages or drive them into poverty when marriages fall apart, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released on Wednesday. In many cases these laws contribute to homelessness, hunger, and ill-health for divorced or separated women and their children. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the World Food Programme (WFP) have recorded significantly higher levels of food insecurity and poverty among female-headed Bangladeshi households.
“Bangladesh is world famous for programs meant to reduce women’s poverty, yet for decades it has ignored how discriminatory personal laws drive many women into poverty,” said Aruna Kashyap, Asia researcher for women’s rights and author of the report. “With many women precariously housed or struggling to feed themselves when their marriages break down, Bangladesh should immediately reform its personal laws, fix its family courts, and provide state assistance to poor women.”
The 109-page report, “‘Will I Get My Dues…Before I Die?’ Harm to Women from Bangladesh’s Discriminatory Laws on Marriage, Separation, and Divorce,” documents how the country’s discriminatory and archaic personal laws impoverish many women at separation or divorce, and trap some women in violent marriages because they fear destitution. Current laws deprive women of an equal right to marital property. The limited entitlements these laws offer women are poorly enforced by family courts and local government arbitration councils. Female-headed households and women facing domestic violence struggle to access critical state support and social assistance. Together, these problems mean there is scant economic protection or security for women when marriages break down.
In Bangladesh, more than 55% of girls and women over 10 years old are married. The UN country team in Bangladesh has identified “marital instability” as a key cause of poverty among female-headed households and the Bangladesh Planning Commission has said that women are more susceptible to becoming poor after losing a male earning family member due to abandonment or divorce. As Bangladesh strives to meet its poverty reduction targets under the Millennium Development Goals, it is undermining its own efforts by leaving discriminatory and poverty-triggering laws on the books.
The report is based on interviews with 255 people, including 120 women who experienced the discriminatory effects of Bangladesh’s personal laws, as well as with judges, family court lawyers, women’s rights experts, and government officials.
Bangladesh’s personal laws for Muslims, Hindus, and Christians have not been reformed in decades. Personal law reform has often been fraught with problems, with some opponents invoking discriminatory interpretations of religion.
“Gender inequality embedded in our religion-based personal laws leaves many women destitute,” said Sara Hossain, honorary director of the Bangladesh Legal Aid Services Trust, a Bangladeshi human rights organization. “The government should press ahead with the reform agenda, orient justice system actors on these changes, and simultaneously improve women’s and girls’ awareness of existing legal protections and implement these laws.”
Women’s contributions go unrecognised in law
A glaring gap in Bangladeshi marriage laws is the absence of the equal right to marital property upon divorce, which means the extensive contributions that women make to their marital homes are ignored. This gap has been partially filled by the landmark 2010 law against domestic violence, which gives women a right to reside in the matrimonial home. The domestic violence law represents a vital step forward, but does not fully address the equal right to marital property.
Married couples in Bangladesh can take steps to jointly own property, such as by putting title to land or houses in both spouses’ names, even without any legal presumption that property and assets acquired during marriage are co-owned. But this is rarely the case: a 2006 World Bank survey found that less than 10 percent of women surveyed had their names on any marital property documentation (rented or owned).
“Married women’s burden of house work and contributions to their family businesses, fields, homes, husband’s careers go unrecognized in our laws,” said Ayesha Khanam, president of the Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, a Bangladeshi human rights organisation. “While the government should do a lot more to give women an equal right to marital property, it should forge ahead with implementing the limited economic rights in the law against domestic violence.”
Women whose husbands are too poor to pay or who have no marital assets need to be connected to social assistance programs and shelters, Human Rights Watch said. Bangladesh does have some social assistance schemes that could benefit women impoverished by separation or divorce, including one offering 300 takas ($4) per month for “husband-deserted” women who meet need criteria. But among the many women interviewed by Human Rights Watch who could have qualified for this program, none had accessed it. Human Rights Watch also found that the social assistance programs do not address women’s multiple vulnerabilities such as disability, ill-health, old age, and marital breakdown.
“Granting equal right to marital property will still leave many poor women out,” said Khushi Kabir, coordinator of Nijera Kori, a local nongovernmental organisation. “The Bangladesh government should urgently connect poor women to social assistance and develop information booths in different parts of the country and inside family court complexes.”
By maintaining discriminatory personal laws and failing to ensure access to judicial remedies and social assistance, Bangladesh is in violation of its obligations under international human rights law. United Nations expert bodies have called for Bangladesh to reform its discriminatory divorce laws, and ensure that women have an equal right to marital property.