In the wake of the Syria crisis, dozens of stories circulated about the forcible marriages of Syrian refugee girls in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. These accounts prompted local and international organizations to tackle this issue in humanitarian settings. But, why should we wait for a humanitarian catastrophe to occur to address child marriage in a meaningful way?
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that one in seven girls in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region are married before their 18th birthday. In fact, data suggest that girls in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Palestine, and Morocco are most affected by this practice. The Population Reference Bureau compiled data from various national health surveys and the Population and Family Health Surveys (PAPFAM) that found 32 percent of Yemeni women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married as minors. The same is true for around 25 percent of Egyptian women between the same age bracket and nearly 18 percent for Iraqi and Syrian women. Although comprehensive statistics about child marriage in humanitarian settings are difficult to obtain, it is widely acknowledged that such abuses are exacerbated in times of conflict.
The majority of countries in this region have set a minimum age for marriage with the exception of Yemen and Saudi Arabia. And in Lebanon, for example, each religious denomination sets its own age for marriage ranging anywhere from nine to 18. However, the minimum marriageable age for girls tends to be less than what is set for boys. International human rights law is clear on governments’ obligations to set 18 as the legal age for marriage for both boys and girls.
The main point of contention, however, is that provisions in family laws allow for exceptions for those under 18 to marry with a male guardian’s consent, usually the father, or through a judge’s approval. Oftentimes, these exemptions are not clearly defined and do not set a minimum age threshold allowing girls to marry so long as her guardian approves. But, even in situations when exceptions are clear, judges sometimes lack understanding and training on how to treat exceptional cases of marriage for minors.
A critical element for decreasing child marriages is through the compulsory registration of births and marriages that ensure the ages of intending spouses. All family laws in the region provide for this, but weak enforcement mechanisms, and especially in rural areas, contribute significantly to the facilitation of child marriages.
Some governments have undertaken efforts to harmonize domestic legislation on the age of marriage with international legal standards, but effective implementation remains a significant barrier to protecting the rights of thousands of girls. Local non-governmental organizations in cooperation with UN agencies and other international organizations have also set up programs that focus on increasing girls’ access to education. Others have established awareness raising campaigns for children and parents on the negative effects of child marriage. Nevertheless, such programs are few and in between to effectively address this practice, and require long-term sustainability.
The MENA region requires a holistic approach to address child marriage in times of peace and during humanitarian crises. Governments should set and enforce a minimum age for marriage at 18 for both boys and girls including a minimum age threshold for exceptions. Judges officiating marriages should be well trained to appropriately handle cases of minors who wish to marry. Moreover, birth and marriage registrations in official registries should be strictly enforced.
Girls should have greater access to education and especially to programs that allow those who drop out of school to continue their education. More awareness campaigns on the negative effects of child marriage are urgently needed.
The fact is that girls and women bear the brunt of violence and abuse in war and governments around the region should do much more to address barriers to the rights of girls and women in peacetime. Such actions will not only better equip governments to safeguard their human rights in conflict, but also aid local and international organizations in quickly and effectively addressing violence in humanitarian situations.