Child marriage again an issue in the Middle East as conservative lawmakers seek to rollback protections

“I’ve discovered how important trust is in life and that not everyone deserves it. If a stranger asks us to get into his car, we shouldn’t accept it, we shouldn’t even talk to him. After the programme, I always tell my friends to say no when their parents want to marry them off. It will ruin your future and you won’t be happy,” Ghaysaa says, a 13 year old Lebanese, who’s attended IRC’s My Safety, My Wellbeing, a psychosocial support curriculum supported by UNICEF.ISTANBUL- The persistence of early marriage in the Middle East continues to damage the educational prospects and emotional wellbeing of girls across the region.

“I was forced to leave my studies in 8th grade and, after marriage, my life was hard,” said Farah Ismail, 22, a resident of a majority Shia neighborhood in northeast Baghdad.

When she was 13, Farah’s father arranged her marriage to a 30-year-old business associate who had helped out when her family fell into economic straits.

“Before this marriage I was a good student and made plans with my best friend Shaima to become a dentist,” Farah said. “I lost my education. Even though I was divorced just two months into the marriage, father refused to let me go back to school, saying that I brought shame on the family.”

Decades ago, secular governments in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries enacted age restrictions on marriage with the goal of improving the status of women, particularly by giving women time to receive university educations.

But in recent years Shia traditionalists in Iraq and Sunni fundamentalists in Egypt and Turkey are trying to roll back those restrictions in parliaments and the popular media.

In a preliminary vote in November, religious lawmakers in Iraq passed a measure that would enable clerics to determine the age when individual girls should marry. Only 13 of the 170 lawmakers present opposed it.

Currently the legal marriage age in Iraq is 18. But judges can reduce that age to 15 in special circumstances. For the majority Shiite sect of Iraqi Muslims, the law would empower clerics to allow girls to marry as soon as they begin menstruating, which usually occurs around age 12.

Faced with objections from the United Nations, the European Union and United States, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi blocked the bill from going for a final vote needed to become law. But its supporters vow to reintroduce the measure after parliamentary elections in May.

“The law would protect girls from rape and harassment by giving them the security provided by a husband and the blessings of religious matrimony,” insisted Hamid Al-Khudhari, a sponsor of the measure.

Critics blasted the proposal.

“The law violates international human rights conventions, is humiliating to women and enables pedophilia,” said Siham Wandi, a former Iraqi diplomat and child protection advocate.

But even without the legislation, child marriage has been on the rise in Iraq.

In 1997, 15% of women wed before 18, according to the Iraqi government. In 2016, that figure jumped to 24%, including nearly 5% who married before age 15.

The trend is similar in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan late last year signed the “Mufti Law,” which allows religious officials to perform marriages once men and women reach puberty.

The most recent UN statistics from Turkey show that 15 percent of women in the country marry before the age of 18.

“I believe we should support girls attending university instead of forcing children who are neither physically or psychologically ready for the responsibilities of marriage,” said Irem Ozorman, an Istanbul bank accountant whose views reflects the city’s more secular outlook versus Erdogan’s rural heartland supporters. “Unfortunately, early marriage is increasingly common in eastern and rural Turkey, just like in the Arab countries.”

In Egypt, fundamentalists have taken to the airwaves calling on lawmakers to lower the marriage age for girls.

“It’s unjust to make the age of marriage identical for men and women,” Mahmoud Bahi El-Din, a leader of Ma’zun Sharia, a group of Sunni clerics, told the Ana Al-Watan – or I Am the Country in Arabic – a program on Al Hadath TV in January.

“A girl’s womanhood develops early, so there should be at least a two-year difference between the bride and groom,” the imam said.

El Din’s efforts are unlikely to gain traction with the administration of president Abdel Fatah El-Sissi, who views early marriage as a threat to the county’s development goals, including emphasizing the social and economic benefits of women’s education.

Keeping girls in school reduces the likelihood of early marriage according to UN surveys.

[LINK- UNICEF CHILDREN in EGYPT REPORT]

“UNICEF and other international development agencies have partnered with the Egyptian government to expand access to basic education, and close the gap between boys’ and girls’ enrolment,” said Nadra Zaki, a child protection specialist at UNICEF in Cairo. “The effort includes basic infrastructure improvements like better sanitation facilities and working with parents and educators to reduce harassment.to keep adolescent girls in school.”

These polices mean that Egypt has the reverse trend of early marriage compared to Iraq.

While 44.4% of Egyptian women who were born between the years 1965 and 1969 were married before the age of 18, the figure dropped to around 19% for girls born between 1990 and 1994, according to the Egypt Demographic and Health Survey.

“Early marriage remains a huge problem for uneducated women, for rural women for poor women,” said Professor of Global Practice Shereen El Feki at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

But there is a glimmer of hope.

[ LINK to PROMONDO study]

“Our research shows changing attitudes among younger men in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Palestine who increasingly view education for their daughters as important as for their sons,” El Feki said. “You see that they are moving towards what we would call a companionate idea of marriage based on an international model of parenting, where it's less an economic exchange and more partnership driven.”

The trends don’t necessarily mean a sea change in Arab societies, but they do illustrate evolving views on matrimony, El Feki added.

“It doesn't mean the decision making is equal in the household and it doesn't mean that there isn't [male] spousal control that happens all over the place,” she said. “But this model does not include a 30-year-old man marrying a 14-year-old girl.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in Al-Fanar Media. 

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