Child Marriage in the Muslim Sri Lankan Community

For purposes of this article, the definition of the word ‘Child’ as per the Oxford Dictionary will be adopted. Accordingly, a child is any ‘young human being below the legal age of majority’, which in the local case is 18 years. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defines child as “a human being below the age of 18 years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier”.

The current interest of the general public on the subject of child marriage in the Muslim community was stimulated by the failure of the ad-hoc Commission appointed by the then Government nearly 8 years ago to issue even an Interim or Draft Report to date pertaining to amendments to the Muslim Marriage & Divorce Act of 1951. It was felt that the MMDA in it’s current form and content does not reflect adequately the changed socio-cultural environment of the Muslim community compared to that which existed 6 decades ago. The Muslim women believe that they are now poised to accept roles of greater responsibility in the legal processes of Marriage and Divorce and have presented strong cases for proposed amendments to the MMDA which would provide them with an opportunity to join their male counterparts in it’s implementation.

It is not proposed to discuss in this article the pros and cons of the various arguments and debates that have surfaced during the recent past on this subject.

However, one topic that has become very controversial and has generated a lot of debate is that of ‘child marriage’ which is permissible according to the current MMDA. Many Muslims are of the opinion that the MMDA in it’s current form is ‘perfect’, simply because it is based on the divine Sharia laws which are immutable. The opposite camp is of the opinion that what is called for is not the breaching of the divine Sharia laws, but it’s re-interpretation (Fiqh laws) in the current context, where the local Muslims are a minority in a non-Muslim country.

In an article titled ‘MMDA and the Minimum Age of Marriage’ published in the Ceylon Today newspaper of 10th April 2017, the co-authors Sabra Zahid and Hyshyama Hamin state : “One of the most hotly contested issues in the growing debate about reform of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) has been with regard to increasing the minimum age of marriage for Muslims. While legal reforms in 1995, increased the minimum age of marriage to 18 years for all citizens except Muslims, the MMDA does not stipulate an age of marriage. Contrary to popular belief, the minimum age at which a Muslim girl or boy can get married under the MMDA is not 12 years, because as per Section 23 of the Act, a girl below 12 can be given in marriage with the authorization of a Quazi judge. Hence the minimum age of marriage for Sri Lankan Muslims is zero.”  (http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=18916)

The knowledge that at present a Muslim girl child can legally be given in marriage at any young age beginning at birth was a complete shock to many Muslims. One can only speculate as to what adverse prejudices about the religion and the community this information has created or reinforced among the non-Muslims of this country.

Unfortunately, rather than extending their ready support to those who were promoting amendments to this and other related clauses of the MMDA, many Muslim males almost reflexively assumed a state of denial by claiming that although such a law exists in the statute books it is not implemented by the members of the Community. And as proof of their ‘conclusions’, they refer to the fact that such child marriages have never occurred within their own family and social circles and is therefore by extension not a matter of grave concern for the community as a whole. Even if instances of child marriage do exist, such Muslims say, the numbers are so small that it is ‘negligible’. What balderdash !! These males do not seem to understand that it is not a case of the size of the numbers, but the humiliation and trauma that the female children experience as a result of the outdated MMDA that should be the cause for concern.

It is this tendency among many Muslims to ‘build walls’ to protect themselves from perceived or imaginary threats that has resulted in the weakening of their analytical and interpretational thinking skills. Their attitude of ‘what I do not see or hear, does not affect me’ debilitates their ability to think broadly. More importantly, their inclination to avoid confronting realities has created space for the ‘learned scholars’ to dominate the discourses on this subject.

Let us permit the numbers to speak for themselves. All data presented below are based on the Census of Population 2012.

Estimated total number of Muslim females, 12 – 14 years, All Island       = 60,714

Estimated total number of Muslim females, 15 – 17 years, All Island       = 56,334

Marital Status of Muslim females, 12 – 14 years (Younger Female Children)

No. Never married 60,183
No. Married Registered 482
No. Married Customary 25
No. Widowed 10
No. Divorced 07
No. Separated Legally 01
No. Separated Not Legally 06
Total 60,714

Marital Status of Muslim females, 15 – 17 years (Older Female Children)

No. Never married 50,034
No. Married Registered 5,887
No. Married Customary 252
No. Widowed 29
No. Divorced 55
No. Separated Legally 26
No. Separated Not Legally 51
Total 56,334

Therefore, as at the date of the 2012 Census of Population, there were a little under 7,000 Female Children, 12 – 17 years, whose marital status were as follows :

No. Married Registered 6,369
No. Married Customary 277
No. Widowed 39
No. Divorced 62
No. Separated Legally 27
No. Separated Not Legally 57
Total 6,831

A Census like any other Survey only provides a snap-shot of the status of the phenomenon under study as at that point in time.

Therefore, as a responsible Community, the Muslims must accept that Child Marriage is very much a part of their socio-cultural patterns of behaviour. They cannot continue to be deaf, dumb and blind to the fact that at the time of the 2012 Census, nearly 6% of the estimated 117,048 Female Children, 12 – 17 years, were married / widowed / divorced / separated. This is definitely not a ‘negligible’ number. The enormity of this ‘crime against our little girls’ cannot and should not be measured quantitatively – purely in terms of numbers. To better understand the full horror of this phenomenon, it must be evaluated qualitatively through the lens of empathy, compassion and understanding. This has in fact already been accomplished by the indefatigable activists of the Muslim Personal Law Reforms Action Group and is available on their website (https://mplreforms.com/cases/).

The marriage-related trauma that some or all of these 6,831 children may have experienced during their childhood must be taken cognizance of. It must be reiterated that this is just the tip-of-the-iceberg. It only demonstrates the existence of the problem, not it’s intensity. The Community must adopt a policy of zero tolerance with regard to child marriages immediately. Our children depend on the elders of the Community to ensure their mental and physical well-being. We cannot let them down. We must not let them down. Especially the female children from the poorer and more vulnerable segments of our Community.

As our Community evolves and grows, we must leave no girl child behind. The Community must ensure that every Female child has the opportunity to realize her full potential as a human being. This can only be achieved if the parochial thinking of ‘scholarly’ males which has a vice-like grip on the Community is obviated.

As the well-known Moroccan Sociologist Fatima Mernissi wrote in her famous book ‘The Veil and the Male Elite’ : “If Women’s rights are a problem, for some modern Muslim men,  it is neither because of the Koran nor the Prophet nor the Islamic tradition but simply because those rights conflict with the interests of a male elite. The elite faction is trying to convince us that their egotistic, highly subjective and mediocre view of culture and society has a sacred basis. But if there is one thing that the women and men of the late 20th century who have an awareness and enjoyment of history can be sure of, it is that Islam was not sent from Heaven to foster egotism and mediocrity.

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