Who, in the eyes of the law, is a child? In Bangladesh, that depends entirely on what you are attempting to do. Rahim, 8, is a slum-dweller looking for a job. Under the Shop and Enterprise Act 1965, he cannot seek work until he is above 12 years of age. However, the Factory Act 1965 bars him from working until he's turned 16. Under the Mines Act 1923, he can work once he crosses 15.
Under the Basic Remuneration Act 1961, the age of maturity is 18. The Employment of Children Act 1938 says that anyone under 15 is a child. The Child Labour Restriction Act 1933 agrees. However, the Child Act 1974, lays down 16 as the age of maturity. One cannot vote, though, until one is 18, according to the law.
The Bangladesh Penal Code holds that a child under seven cannot be punished for an offence. The Underage Marriage Prevention Act 1929 lays down different marriageable age standards for boys (21) and girls (18). In the Women and Children Oppression Prevention Act 2000, a person under 14 is deemed to be a child. The Adolescence Act states that a person is an adolescent until s/he reaches the age of 18. The Muslim Family Act 1961, sets 16 as the age of maturity. Under the Bongiyo Bhoboghuray Act 1943, everyone under 14 is a child. And the Motor Vehicles Act 1939 lays down that to drive a light vehicle, one has to be above 18 and to drive a heavy vehicle, above 20.
The point that this tiring list makes is simple: At what age does a child in Bangladesh legally reach the age of maturity. Evidently, Bangladeshi laws lay down contradictory standards.
The United Nations Child Rights Charter had set the legal definition at 18, and most countries in the world follow this standard. The rationale being that the State would be bound to protect the rights of the child at least until that age. Equally importantly, a child has the right to know when s/he reaches the age of maturity.
In developing countries, childhood often ends well before the age of 18, no matter what the laws say. Children have to go out and work to contribute to the family income.
"The government is encouraging child labor by setting different age limits for children in different Acts," says Mohammad Asgar Ali, Director, Bangladesh Child Rights Forum. "Besides fixing an age limit, the government should also make birth registration compulsory. In our country, it is difficult to ascertain the exact age of a child because of the lack of birth certificates."
Fariduddin Ahmed, senior advocate of the High Court has an explanation for why different laws must lay down different limits: "Even those under 18 can sometimes commit serious offences that require punishment. May be what we could do is set up correctional facilities and special courts for adolescent delinquents. Also, in a poor country like ours, the reality is that a child under 18 is forced to work. In such cases, the child would be disadvantaged unless there is an appropriate law for the situation. In Western countries, for example, children under 18 are allowed to work part-time and engage in light labour. They are also ensured the right work environment. Of course, more often than not, those kids work to earn pocket money, not to sustain themselves."
Sumaiya Khair, Professor with the Law department, Dhaka University, agrees in substance: "We could allocate specific jobs that are appropriate for children under 18."
As for the difference in the marriageable age limits for boys and girls, Govinda Chandra Mondol, also with the Law department in Dhaka University, says, "This difference keeps the social perspective in mind. In our society, it is customary for the groom to be older than his bride as he is expected to the bread-winner of the family. We do not encourage marriage between two people of the same age in our culture."
Bangladesh is not the only country that remains undecided about what age a child reaches maturity. Angela Melchiorre's research 'At What Age' reveals that in 25 countries of the world, there is no set age limit for compulsory primary education for children. In 33 countries, there is no minimum age for work, and in 44 countries, girls are allowed to marry earlier than boys can. In at least 125 countries, seven to 15-year-olds are taken to court for their offences and detained in dangerous prison conditions, even though this is the age group that must go through compulsory primary education. In some countries, even the concept of compulsory primary education is missing, and children below 14 are allowed to work. There are also instances where children below 12 are allowed to marry and children as young as seven are punished for their crimes.
Bangladesh, and indeed every country, must define clearly the age of maturity, so children can enjoy their rights and the State's responsibilities are more clearly understood.