Notarising child marriage!
With the money from the parents of the girls or from the grooms, the brokers usually prepare or manage forged birth certificates, where the girls aged between 10-14 are shown as 18-19 so that it does not cause any problem legally.
Fatema Begum of Kalyanpur slum, locally known as the "Kalyanpur Pora Bosti", got married to Md Mohsin in March, this year.
According to Fatema's birth certificate, issued by the office of the birth and death registration of Ilisha Union of Bhola Sadar, she was born on January 1, 2008. She is only 12-year-old, although the legal marriage age of girls is 18 years in Bangladesh.
However, the copy of her marriage affidavit, signed by supreme court lawyer Farhana Quddus Sweety, and declared by Dhaka Judge Court Advocate Md Johayedul Islam, states that Fatema is 18.
According to her cousin, Fatema is 12-years-old, and she used to study in class five. But the groom married her by completing the legal formalities through a broker, in exchange for Tk 5,000, without registering the marriage.
Although an affidavit must be signed in the presence of at least two witnesses, the paper shows that Fatema and Mohsin were the two witnesses of their marriage.
Law and Justice Division in 2015 announced that legally there is no scope to issue marriage and divorce affidavits through the Notary Public, as it is a violation of The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Registration Act (1974).
If anyone engages in such activities, his/her notary certificate can be cancelled.
But since families are required to produce their daughters' birth certificate during marriages, many, especially, those who belong to low-income groups and live in urban settlements, forge the certificates through brokers. The latter get these false documents attested by a notary public.
The practice has become pervasive during the pandemic as families are desperate to marry off their daughters to ease their economic burden.
The Daily Star contacted the notary public advocate Farhana Quddus Sweety, who introduced herself as a Supreme Court lawyer. She admitted that she signed the paper, without independently verifying the matter, in absence of the bride and groom, since the lawyer who brought her the papers confirmed that they are adults.
Farhana could not provide any details of the lawyer and said that since she "works with many lawyers every day, she doesn't keep the contact details of every one of them."
Asked, SC lawyer Tanzim Al Islam said, "It is the duty of the notary public to verify whether the affirmed information is true or not and sign the affidavit in the presence of both parties and witnesses. However, the custom has not developed here."
In such cases, the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs has the authority to cancel their license, added advocate Islam.
Besides, Section 9 of the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 2017 also states that if any person solemnises or conducts a child marriage, it shall be an offence for which s/he shall be punished with imprisonment for a maximum of two years, and a minimum of six months, or with a fine of maximum 50,000 or with both.
And in default of payment of fine, s/he will be punished with imprisonment which may extend to three months, it mentions.
According to Islam, the marriage affidavit only affirms that the parties are of age and that they are willingly getting married and intend to live together as husband and wife.
However, according to the law, every marriage solemnised under Muslim law shall be registered through the Nikah Registrar.
According to Mawlana Abdus Sobhan, president of Korail Slum Development Committee (Boubazar Unit), child marriage is taking place in the slums through some brokers who forge documents for around Tk 5,000.
"With the money from the parents of the girls or from the grooms, the agents usually prepare or manage forged birth certificates, where the girls aged between 10-14 are shown as 18-19 so that it does not cause any problem legally," he said.
"They even prepare the affidavit such that the brides and grooms do not need to be physically present there," he added.
Incidents of child marriages had decreased in the slums for a few years as a result of massive campaigns, but they have increased again due to Covid-19, he opined.
Kamal Hossain, a resident from Kallyanpur Pora Bosti, shared similar concerns.
"In the slums, girls as young as 12 are spotted by older males in the area. Sometimes these men convince the girls to elope with them, and other times parents are insecure about their daughters' safety and so marry them off," he said.
"In both cases, they depend on the agents, who help them with papers," he added.
Since the affidavit of marriage through the notary public has no legal base, there is no scope for the brides and the grooms to ask for any legal remedy.
Slum dwellers said an overwhelming majority of girls in their areas are married off before they turn 14.
According to a 2020 Unicef report, Bangladesh is home to 38 million child brides, including currently married girls along with women who were first married in childhood; of them, 13 million married before age 15.
The Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) 2019 of Unicef also shows that 51 percent of young women in Bangladesh were married before their 18th birthday.
Shahana Huda, senior coordinator of Manusher Jonno Foundation, said the government must publicise that there's no scope of marriage registration through the notary public and send a strong message to the notary association so that they discontinue such practice.
"The government can distribute posters and leaflets to every locality, especially in slums. At the same time, in case of notary public's continuous practise, their certificate should be cancelled," she said.
"We have seen that the nikah registrars nowadays at least fear to conduct child marriage, as there have been instances of cancelling their licences," she added.