In 2017, we don’t want to believe that child marriages could still be an issue. However, an estimated 15 million young women under the age of 18 are forced into marriage every year, according to the UN Population Fund. In Lebanon, marriage at a young age is an unfortunate reality for too many young women, due to the lack of an age requirement in the Penal Code.
While data on child marriages is difficult to access, an estimated 1% of girls in Lebanon are married by the age of 15, and 6% of girls are married by the age of 18, according to 2016 statistics from UNICEF. It is widely believed that this number has increased, and will continue to increase, due to the growing trend of Syrian refugees being married off for the sake of stability.
Lebanon recently demonstrated that it wants to put an end to this growing trend. But does it have authority over the matter?
At the end of March, a draft marriage law created by the Lebanese Democratic Women’s Gathering was presented to the Lebanese Cabinet. It seeks to set the legal age for marriage at 18. This followed a conference titled “Banning Child Marriage” organized by the United Nations and the Lebanese Parliament, during which UN Deputy Special Coordinator for Lebanon Philippe Lazzarini broke down the numbers.
“Child marriage is an issue that affects all cohorts in Lebanon – Lebanese girls, Syrian refugees, and Palestinian refugees,” said Lazzarini. He went on to explain that girls between the ages of 15 and 19 that are married or in a union can be “found among Syrian refugees at 27%, followed by Palestinian refugees from Syria at 13%, and 4% for both Lebanese women and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.”
Lazzarini explained that the unfortunate cases of girls being married at a young age are not confined to rural areas, but can also be found in Lebanon’s bustling cities.
For Syrian refugees, child marriages present a different type of problem. According to the website Girls Not Brides, destitute Syrian families are having to decide to “marry their daughters off in the hope that a man will be able to provide financial and physical support and protection for their daughters”.
According to the UN Population Fund, child marriages were uncommon among Syrians before a civil conflict overtook their country in 2011. Propelled into unfortunate circumstances, Syrian refugees are under pressure to marry off their daughters due to an unforeseen future and the inability to provide for their families. This coincides with young Syrian refugees being less likely to receive an education as a result of instability. According to UNICEF, women who have gone through schooling and have received an education are less likely to be forced into marriage at a young age.
In Lebanon, marriages are governed by religion rather than civil courts, which may make the draft law’s implementation difficult. Because there is no legal age set for marriage in Lebanon, marital decisions are left to the discretion of religious authorities.
This is where things get tricky. With marriage left under the supervision of religious authorities, different sets of rules apply to different people, with no state interference or regulation. According to the Beirut-based Mattar Law Firm, if guardian or parental permission is provided, the age capacity for marriage is 17 for boys and as low as 9 for girls. Under religious sects, the age rule drops to a similar low for the country’s Shi’a population, with judicial permission set at 15 for boys and 9 for girls. Meanwhile, marriage within the Druze community is set at a minimum age of 16 for boys and 15 for girls. The variations in minimum age requirements across religions have only added to the burden of setting an age requirement.
Religion has also found its way into public debate about the proposed law. Lebanese MP Elie Kayrouz, who supports the draft law and is known for his advocacy on women’s rights issues, and his parliamentary bloc kicked off a social media campaign targeting the prevention of child marriages with the tagline “Don’t pick it before its time”. While the campaign was attacked for being demeaning toward women, the parliamentary bloc claimed that the Shi’a opposition group Hezbollah was behind the attack, according to media reports.
Beyond the religious politics of the situation, some are asking for people to reach across the gender divide in order to support the law. Speaking at the conference held at Parliament, Lebanon’s Minister of State for Women’s Affairs Jean Ogasapian said that “child marriage is not just a legal issue, but a humanitarian one”.
Ogasapian said that to eradicate child marriages there must be social and educational norms established, and men are obligated to participate in the change in order to protect women’s rights. “I believe that women’s affairs are not confined to women...we have to seek [men’s] participation,” said Ogasapian.
Lebanon is not completely oblivious to its problem. In late 2015, a video of a hoax wedding went viral in the country and around the world for depicting a young girl—the bride—in a wedding dress alongside a much older man—the groom—donning a black suit and tie. The stark contrast in their ages was startling to some passersby, who criticized the man for being old enough to be the young girl’s grandfather. While on the other hand, and perhaps more startling, some were congratulating the pair on their wedding, seemingly oblivious to the age difference.
The video was organized by the Lebanese organization KAFA and aimed to wake up the country to the reality of child marriages.
This wouldn’t be the first time that Lebanon attempted to take control of the legal marriage age, as there have been several unsuccessful attempts over the years. In 2015, a bill was presented to Parliament by the Lebanese National Commission for Women’s Affairs that wanted to make it so that a civil judge would approve all child marriages. Activists have stood against calls for a judge’s approval, stating that it does not do enough to protect young brides.
The discussion about setting a legal age for marriage also follows another controversial conversation about marriage in Lebanon. In December 2016, Lebanon abolished an article in the Penal Code that stated rapists would not face legal prosecution if they married their targets of sexual assault.