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Footprints: Plight of Muslim ‘child brides’ in Sri Lanka

Updated November 25, 2016
Trapped in a vicious circle of child marriage and abandonment. —Photo by writer
Trapped in a vicious circle of child marriage and abandonment. —Photo by writer

WHEN she was 14, Fathima was given in marriage by her parents. “I came home from school one day and I was told that a marriage had been arranged for me,” recalls Fathima, now 22. She is seated on the step of her bare, half-built house, overlooking the agricultural landscape of the Muslim majority Ampara district.

Fathima’s marriage lasted three weeks. Her husband abandoned her without leaving a trace of his whereabouts. Her sickly parents live with her and she faces a daily ordeal of finding work as a labourer in adjoining farmlands.

In an adjacent village, 58-year-old Siddilebbe asserts that there was no purpose in allowing his 13-year-old daughter to study. Therefore, soon after she turned 14, her married her off. Looking back, he has no regrets. “Girls are a burden,” he says stoically.

In the village of Oluvil, Haniffa recalls the exact date of the circumstances that led to her marriage at the age of 14 to an alcoholic. “I was studying in grade eight. It was December 8. When I came home there was a man outside our home. My parents were at their hired agricultural labour work. He tried to grab me and I shouted. Neighbours gathered and when my parents arrived soon after, this stranger asked them permission to marry me. They consented immediately because the neighbours said my reputation had been lost,” recollects Haniffa.

Haniffa is now 33, with four children, unable to get a divorce. “Every time my husband appears before the Qazi court, he pleads that he does not want to say talaq. When we return home, he gets drunk and tries to kill me and the children,” she says sobbing.

The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act in Sri Lanka, also known as the Muslim Personal Law, allows the marriage of girls as young as 12 years. A high percentage of Sri Lankan Muslim families get their girls married off before they reach 18 –– the statutory age of marriage in Sri Lanka –– says a new study titled Unequal Citizens:Muslim Women’s Struggle for Justice and Equality, written by Hyshyama Hamin and Hasanah Cegu Isadeen.

The study quotes a 2015 survey conducted by Fokus Women in collaboration with the Muslim Women’s Development Trust (MWDT) in Puttalam district involving 1,000 Muslim female heads of household that says 42 per cent of the respondents were married before they were18. The reasons given for early marriage were mainly “family tradition and customs” (55pc) and “economic reasons including protection and security” (23pc).

Records of Muslim marriage registration in Kattankudy, an all-Muslim town in the Eastern Province, indicated that in 2015, 22pc of all marriages were with a bride below 18 years of age. This is a considerable increase from 2014, when the figure was 14pc.

In Puttalam district on the western coast, and Batticaloa district on the eastern coast, the age of arranged marriages varies between 14 and 17.

Section 363(e) of the Sri Lankan Penal Code was amended in 1995 in such a way that the Muslim practice of allowing men to marry girls under 12 is safeguarded. The amended section re-defined “statutory rape” as sexual intercourse with any girl below the age of 16, with or without her consent ... unless the woman is his wife who is over 12 years and not judicially separated from the man.”

In Addalachenai town, a small local community organisation –– the Humanitarian Elevation Organisation (HEO) headed by Kairudeen N. Ahamed and run by women –– hopes that the reform in the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act will be a reality where woman will be an equal participant in the marriage process as mentioned in the Quran.

Raising of the marriage age of females to 18, male responsibility towards their children in case of divorce, scrapping the female dowry provision, a thorough assessment by the Quazi board of the financial background and suitability of the male before marriage, and the inclusion of women to the Quazi board, are some points Muslims who support the amendment of the law want added.

The Lankan government has decided to amend the Muslim Personal Law in Sri Lanka to comply with international conventions on women and children rights. It has appointed a sub-committee to propose amendments to the Muslim Personal Law.

However, immediate action on this may be postponed after the Sri Lankan Constitutional Assembly’s sub-committee on Fundamental Rights recommended on Monday that within three months of the enactment of the new constitution, the president should appoint a five-member commission to go into the constitutional validity of the existing written and unwritten laws (including personal laws).

“Child marriage in Sri Lanka should be looked at as a sociological problem and not a religious problem. Any cultural backwardness that affects the girl child should be stopped by proper policies backed by law and in full accordance with Islam,” says female sociologist and lecturer at the South Eastern University in Oluvil, M. Y. M. Suheera.

Published in Dawn, November 25th, 2016