Gender and Land Rights Database


Women's property and use rights in personal laws

Since its independence in 1971, Bangladesh has undertaken significant legal reforms, including on matters related to women’s rights and protection against violence within the family. However, matters such as marriage, divorce, and economic rights have remained largely untouched (30).

With the 1972 Constitution, the country endorsed Personal Laws in force during the British colonial regime. Under these laws, the principal religious communities were at liberty to uphold their personal laws. As a result, followers of different faiths fall under different provisions that are incorporated into the statutory laws (1). The laws are supplemented by authoritative decisions issued by the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and the High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh (30).

According to the 2001 census the large majority (89.7 percent) of Bangladesh is Muslim.

Hindus constitute about 9.2 percent, Buddhists 0.7 percent, and Christians 0.3 percent of the population (30).

In Bangladesh there are four sets of civil laws that relate to family matters:

-  the Special Marriage Act (applies only to those who renounce their religion)

-  the Child Marriage Restraint Act

-  the Guardian and the Wards Act

-  the Family Courts Ordinance

All these laws discriminate against women in marriage, separation, maintenance (30) and child custody. 

Muslim Personal Laws:

- Marriage is a contract between two individuals and requires the consent of both partners in the presence of two witnesses to be valid. Every solemnised marriage must also be registered.

- If a girl is married by her parents during infancy, on attaining puberty, she can endorse or dissolve the marriage.

- Divorce can be obtained in any of the following ways: 

> mutual consent of the husband and the wife without court intervention; 

> a judicial decree on request of the wife on one or more grounds specified in the Dissolution of Muslim Marriage Act 1939 and the Muslim Family Law’s Ordinance 1961; 

> divorce by the husband at will.

The right to divorce at will is not enjoyed by a Muslim wife unless her husband confers this right on her in the marriage deed - kabin - registered by the Muslim Marriage Registrar. However, the wife can obtain a divorce through a court decree.

- The mother is never entitled to guardianship of her children. Guardianship rests with the father and, after him, with his father and brothers. However, the mother is entitled to the care and custody of her sons until they are seven years old and of her daughters till puberty.

- A Muslim mother is entitled to maintenance from her son if he is solvent financially (4).

The Muslim Family Laws Amendment Ordinance, 1961:

- Forbids a man to contract a marriage during the subsistence of an existing marriage without the prior permission in writing of the Arbitration Council and the wife/wives. The punishment for infringing the law consists in the immediate payment of the entire dower - mahr – which is a fixed sum of money to be paid to the wife. The punishment also includes imprisonment up to one year or a fine or both.

- The Ordinance modified the right of talak, where a man may irrevocably and immediately dissolve a marriage by pronouncing the intention in front of witnesses. Under the new procedure, talak does not become effective immediately. A period of 90 days must intervene between the date of serving the notice to the Union Parishad chairman, the lowest tier of the local government system, and the date when the divorce becomes effective (4).

The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Registration Act, 1974

- Registration of marriage is mandatory. This ordinance empowers the local councils to issue licenses for marriage registration to one or more persons, known as Nikah Registrar. Whoever contravenes the provisions shall be punishable with simple imprisonment for a period not exceeding three months or with fine or with both.

Upon application, a Nikah Registrar may also register a divorce taken place under his jurisdiction (4).

The Family Courts Ordinance, 1984:

- Amended the procedures regarding maintenance, divorce, dowry, inheritance, and restitution of conjugal rights among the Muslims (1).

Hindu Personal Laws:

- The woman’s consent to marriage is not required, nor is divorce possible; and unrestricted polygamy is allowed.

- The father is always the preferred guardian of his children; the mother can be the guardian, but her rights are inferior to those of the father (4).

- In May 2012, the cabinet approved a bill for optional registration of Hindu marriages 

Christian Personal Laws:

- The grounds for divorce are more restrictive for women than for men: whereas the husband can simply allege that his wife has committed adultery, the wife must prove adultery plus one other fact such as conversion to another religion, bigamy, rape, sodomy, bestiality, desertion for two years, or cruelty (30).

- Alimony after divorce is tied to the woman’s chastity.

The Child Marriage Restraint Amendment Ordinance, 1984:

- Fixed the minimum age for marriage at 18 for women and 21 years for men (4).

The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1980:

- Provides that giving or taking/demanding of dowry is an offence punishable with imprisonment and/or fine (4).

The Citizenship Act, 1951:

- A person can inherit citizenship only from the father but not from the mother. Also, the spouse of a Bangladeshi man may receive citizenship but the contrary is not allowed (17).

- Except for inheritance, all other matters concerning property are governed by civil law. Women can administer property and execute or administrate estates. Women have the right to make contracts, including those related to credit, real estate and other property as well as other commercial transactions (17).

The Contract Law, 1972

- Provides both women and men with the right to make contracts, including those related to credit, real estate and other property as well as other commercial transactions, in their own names (17).

Sources: numbers in brackets (*) refer to sources displayed in the Bibliography