Through a landmark decision by the Cabinet of Ministers in Sri Lanka, Muslims now have the option to marry under the Sri Lankan Marriage Registration Ordinance, the common law that governs marriages and divorces. This is a significant change because the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) that has governed Muslim marriage and divorce discriminates against Muslim women. Additionally, Sri Lanka’s justice minister Ali Sabry has proposed legislation to raise the minimum age for marriage under the MMDA to 18. These two reforms are crucial steps in addressing child marriage in Sri Lanka.
Child Marriage and Its Impact
Child marriage is the practice of marriage in which one or both parties are under 18. This practice presents severe risks to children, especially young girls. Married children are less likely to complete their education. According to World Vision, girls are three times more likely to marry before 18 when they do not receive schooling, as opposed to those who attend school beyond the elementary level.
Child marriage also comes with physical risks including complications with early pregnancies, or exposure to sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Those entering into child marriage are also more likely to become victims of sexual abuse or domestic violence. Around the world, girls are 50% more likely to experience physical or sexual abuse if they marry before they turn 15 than those who marry after 18. This underlines the fact that some child marriages occur as a way to cover up a sexual assault to avoid scandal. The effects of child marriage are psychologically and physically damaging to children and violate their free will.
In addition to cultivating human rights violations, child marriage is also both a big driver and a significant consequence of poverty. Some families marry their children off because it gives them one less child to fund. In other communities, it is a way to offset debt because dowries for a younger girl are lower. Marriage may keep young brides from accessing their education and better jobs or professions. Economic dependence on their partner may also trap them in long-term financial insecurity. Child marriage limits the growth of individuals and by proxy, the growth of communities.
Child Marriage in Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka, poverty and lack of education have contributed to the practice of child marriage, but traditional laws have fueled its continuation. Sri Lanka has a lower rate of child marriage than other countries in South Asia. However, it is still prevalent, mostly within some Muslim communities. Passed in 1951, the MMDA has relegated Muslim marriage governance to Islamic law versus common law. Sri Lankan common law does not allow marriage under 18, but the MMDA has set the minimum marriage age at 12. Further, Islamic officials have permitted the marriage age to be even lower. Additionally, if females married under the MMDA could not sign their marriage contract, a “wali,” or male guardian needed to do so. With virtually no previous protection against child marriage for Muslims in Sri Lanka, the recent governmental reforms should make a significant difference.
Progress in Ending Sri Lankan Child Marriage
The new marriage contract alternative now protects children from entering into marriages by force. Additionally, the fact that the MMDA has raised the marriage age to 18 has made all child marriages in Sri Lanka illegal. Further, this will prevent any registered child marriages. Various past appeals, especially from United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), prompted these reforms.
In collaboration with the Sri Lankan government and other organizations, UNICEF signed the June Declaration to End Violence Against Children in Sri Lanka by 2030. This declaration is part of the National Partnership to End Violence Against Children, which began in June 2017. UNICEF’s work launched on-the-ground efforts to give community leaders, police and government officials training on the effects of child marriage. The organization has also worked to provide economic support for women and initiate policy reform. These efforts have helped reduce the overall child marriage rate to 25 million, which is fewer than predictions from 10 years ago.
Despite UNICEF’s achievements, its most significant obstacle has been government cooperation. For several years, UNICEF pressed the Sri Lankan government to involve legal action against the practice of child marriage. Now, the new legislation that the Sri Lankan Cabinet has implemented will address this call to action.
Issues like child marriage require a multifaceted approach that addresses its enabling factors. Because Muslim law allowed child marriage, the practice continued even with UNICEF’s efforts to address it. Yet, the new legal action combined with continuing on-ground efforts brings hope to Sri Lanka. Thanks to the new legislation by the Sri Lankan Cabinet of Ministers, a significant decline of Sri Lankan child marriage seems within reach.
– Hariana Sethi
Photo: Wikimedia Commons