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Ending Child Marriage in Sri Lanka

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Introduction

Child marriage is a criminal offense in Sri Lanka if it involves children under 18 but exceptions exist for minority Muslims. Section 23 of The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) in the Sri Lankan constitution allows children aged 12 and under to be married with the approval of the quazi; Muslim family judge (Long Overdue: Breaking down the minimum age of marriage in Sri Lanka, 2019). First established in 1951, many controversies and discussions have taken place around this law with debates on whether a minimum age for marriage should exist and what the minimum age would be if it were to exist for Muslims in the country.

Background

Engaging in sexual intercourse with a girl below 16 is a criminal offense under Section 363 of the Penal Code in Sri Lanka except for married Muslim girls. During the same time that this law came into existence, the minimum age for marriage in Sri Lanka was also raised to 18 except for Muslims (Long Overdue: Breaking down the minimum age of marriage in Sri Lanka, 2019). Immediately after the Penal Code amendments were made in 1995 child marriages decreased dramatically in the country except in the case of Muslim families (De Silva, 2009). This can be attributed to the MMDA.

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Child marriage is a form of modern slavery where victims have limited or no rights and are forced by their families into marriage, then into doing domestic chores, engage in non-consensual sexual activities with their partners, and be young mothers (Girls Not Brides, n.d.). Girls of any age in Sri Lanka could literally wake up married like in the case of a 17-year-old Muslim girl whose story was anonymously published in The Economist in 2017. While she was in the hospital because of her suicide attempt to avoid marriage with a stranger, her family registered her marriage. No consequences were faced by the family because of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act. In another provision of the act, the bride in question does not need to provide any consent; only the Qazi needs to agree. The logic in the statement needs to be noted: the bride is too young to have a say about her own marriage but is old enough to be married and have children of her own.

One of the root causes of child marriage is gender inequality. Equal Measures 2030 has developed the SDG Gender Index that draws data from the UN, World Bank, and NGOs to mark 193 countries of the world out of 100, with a full score of 100 indicating an achievement of full gender equality in the country. Sri Lanka scores a total of 62.1 points which is even lower than the total average of the index which is 65.7. With less than 11 years left until 2030 more needs to be done to help achieve equality for women and girls and to empower them in different areas (Addressing gender inequality, 2019). There are many other reasons for the prevalence of child marriage in Sri Lanka. According to a 2004 report published in the journal Reproductive Health Matters, Tambiah explains the tendency of parents to practice forced underage marriages in Sri Lanka due to ‘the belief that marriage will protect against increased sexual vulnerability’. Some families believe that in times of war and humanitarian crises ‘effective familial and community sexual surveillance is less possible’ so marriage is seen as a solution (Tambiah, 2004). In cases of statutory rape, the victim is married off to the perpetrator in fear of defamation in society (Girls Not Brides, n.d.). Poverty is another major reason; child marriage is often seen as a solution for poor families because it decreases their family expenses and it could also help them obtain financial benefits if they “sell” their daughters or accept dowries or a “bride price” (Girls Not Brides, n.d.). Strong religious beliefs and considerations are another reason for child marriages (Girls Not Brides, n.d).

Many of these marriages result in early pregnancies. Pushing these young girls into motherhood at a young age can cause many mental and physical problems in the long run for these child brides and their children. Complications during pregnancy are the number one cause of death in girls aged 15-19 around the world (Girls Not Brides, n.d.). Practicing unsafe sex with older men who often have or have had multiple sexual partners in the past also increases their risk of having AIDS (Girls Not Brides, n.d.). Child marriage can also lead to exploitation and human trafficking similar to cases in countries like India, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Indonesia (Girls Not Brides, n.d.). Married girls under the age of 15 are also 50% more likely to face violence by their husbands or partners (Girls Not Brides, n.d.).

Current Status

Forcing underage kids into marriage is a form of child abuse that can have many short-term and long-term implications. Many online petitions exist to spread awareness about this issue and bring it to policymakers’ attention. One such example of a popular petition has been started by an organization called AYEVAC which is aimed towards receiving 75,000 signatures in support of stopping violence against children in Sri Lanka. It has already received more than 73,000 signatures. In the recent year because of pressure from the international society, Sri Lanka committed to ending child marriages by 2030; Target 5.3 is aimed at eliminating all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage, and female genital mutilations by 2030 (Girls Not Brides, n.d.). However, contrary to what was promised the government failed to update and provide a review on its progress in 2018 (Girls Not Brides, n.d.). At the national level, the National Action Plan to Address Sexual and Gender-based Violence has been launched since 2016 to combat the issue of child marriage (Girls Not Brides, n.d.). Moreover, during its Universal Periodic Review in 2017, the Sri Lankan government accepted recommendations to review the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA, n.d.). The review is still ongoing and not much progress has been made so far. Over the years, many people have proposed recommendations and amendments to the existing law. Some of these include a) change the minimum age of marriage, b) require signed consent by the bride, and c) appointment of female Qazis to adjudicate family law (MMDA: ACJU to discuss amendments with MPs, 2019). In July 2019, Muslim parliamentarians promised to bring proposed MMDA amendments forward to the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama; ACJU for discussion (MMDA: ACJU to discuss amendments with MPs, 2019). According to its official website, ACJU is the primary religious leadership body of Islamic theologists and scholars in Sri Lanka. If a consensus is formed between both parties, the matter will then be proposed at the Parliament, whose approval will then be informed to the Ministry of Justice where the amendments will be officially published into existence (MMDA: ACJU to discuss amendments with MPs, 2019). According to a local news outlet, the ACJU meeting was held on July 21 that ended without any firm conclusions but the ACJU was reported to be against the amendments. According to MP Mujibur Rahuman, “As we were pressed for time it was decided that a four-member committee would be appointed with members of the ACJU who would reach a mutual understanding and present a report by Monday next week.” (Rizwie, 2019). In the past ACJU has not done much in the best interest of Muslim women and girls and has been “…standing as a roadblock to Muslim women’s equal rights and access to justice in Sri Lanka” (MMDA, n.d.).

Recommendations

Child marriage is unethical because it harms basic human rights and rights of children enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Girls Not Brides, n.d.). Laws should apply to all children regardless of their gender and the religion or community they belong to; “Muslim girls are not born with a [different] reproductive system that makes them ready for marriage at an earlier age” (Cegu & Hamin, 2016). To end child marriage, the end of discrimination amongst communities is important. Despite developments made in the country as a whole, the Muslim minority is lagging in many areas like life expectancy, literacy, and education (Imtiaz, Subedi & Sarvananthan, 2019). A report published by the World Bank stresses the importance of education in tackling extremism faced by the minority Muslims in the country by reducing religious radicalization which helps in the overall development of the community and brings it to par with the rest of the communities in Sri Lanka. (Role of Education in the Prevention of Violent Extremism, n.d.). Education is a powerful tool that can be used against child marriage. Uneducated girls are three times more likely to be married by 18 compared to educated girls (Girls Not Brides, n.d.). Therefore, there is a need for an affirmative action plan aimed towards increasing education rates in the community, especially among women. Many entities need to play a bigger role in stopping child marriage like parents and families of young children, religious leaders, politicians, NGOs, human rights organizations, and governments. More services and opportunities need to be made available to these child brides to decrease the harmful effects that can come with becoming a young mother. In the short- term setting a minimum bar for marriage can help decrease the rates of child marriage and early childbirth and protect underage children specifically girls from marriage. As seen in Bangladesh, a fixed legal age with no exceptions and loopholes is better for the development of a country compared to a legal age in marriage with loopholes (Cegu & Hamin, 2016).

For real, long-term change, it is important to address societal views and beliefs on gender inequality which seriously undermine the potential of women and girls (Advancing gender equality in Sri Lanka: A crucial balancing act, 2019). Both education and awareness are key to success in this issue. But regardless, change is only possible through consistent and conscious efforts taken by different entities in society (Advancing gender equality in Sri Lanka: A crucial balancing act, 2019). Only time will tell if meetings with the ACJU result in a firm decision, but I strongly hope for a decision made in favor of the thousands of underage Muslim girls that have been forced into marriage in Sri Lanka.   

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