Months of pandemic-driven lockdown had deprived children of school, andamong some, this hiatus has led to a sense of complacency. Throughout the enforcedhome-stay, the mother of a young girl who had just completed her GCE Ordinary Level in December 2019 was fretting about her future. As the eldest child of a single motherwho has had no formal education, the girl had grown up in a care home. She is ambitious anddesires to be successful. But, behind this ambitiousnesslingersa sense of indecision and idlenessbuttressed by external factors, such as a living environment that hasdrug peddlers and addicts,vagrants and drifting youth from broken homes and manyunemployed. The mother lives in constant fear of the girl being misled by the company around the residence.When the schools reopened, the girl had decided not to continue, not even to re-sit the math paper she had scored poorly at the national exam. So, now what, seems to be the question?
The story of Sana (not her real name) is one isolated story that I know of. There may be thousands more like herin Sri Lanka. Sana’s mother was under aged when she cohabited with her partner and today continues to live in poverty with 5 children following a life lived with multiple partners. But, the mother does not desire the same life for her daughter, which she fears may happen. Sana’s story is cause for concern with the news of a returnof child marriage in Asia in a pandemic driven socio-economic trajectory. According to reports, child marriage is increasing in the region, thousands of young girls are being forced into marriage by desperate families driven into poverty as a result of the fallout from COVID-19. This new driftdissolves years of hard work by activists and NGOs to halt the practice of forcing girls into marriage as a way of escaping from the burden of feeding an extra mouth. Previous attempts at getting children back to school is pushed aside in the face of job loss and poverty, driving parents into giving the girl child in marriage. Child marriage has been in practice in normal times as well, but the pandemic present and its suffering has intensified the problem.
UNICEF defines child marriage “as a marriage of a girl or boy before the age of 18 and refers to both formal marriages and informal unions in which children under the age of 18 live with a partner as if married.”According to its report, although child marriage affects both girls and boys, it affects girls disproportionately, especially in South Asia. Globally, there are at least 12 million child marriages annually, and South Asia has the largest number, 17% women are married by the age of 15 and 45% by the age of 18. One in three women in the developing world are married before they reach the age of 18. In Sri Lanka, child marriage rates are at 2% by 15 and 12% by 18.
Sri Lanka has demonstrated its commitment to engender children’s rights,vis-á-visto end child marriage by ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991, and enacted legal reforms via the General Marriage Registration Ordinance (1995) that sets the legal age of marriage at 18.
In August 2020, the first private member’s bill titled Minimum Age of Marriage was submitted to the new parliament. Itsobjectiveis to ensure that the State fulfils its national and international obligations to protect the rights of every child in the country. Before this, in January 2020, a similar private member’s bill was presented in parliament to amend the Marriages Ordinance and Marriage Registration (both of 1907), introduce a Minimum Age of Marriage in Sri Lanka and to repeal the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act. The January 2020bill to introduce a minimum age of marriage had identified child marriage as a violationof a young person’s right to education, development, and security. Indeed the dawn of reckoning among our legislators, some of whom had on earlier occasions shied-away from unconditionally supporting legislation advancing women’s rights, and today, their acceptance of the injustice and the danger of such a practice is indeed admirable. The first bill acknowledged that an underage marriage would expose the girl child who is already vulnerable to the dangers of physical and mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect, exploitation and sexual abuse. The fact that the State sees an urgency in putting right an archaically twisted practice is an indication that years of discussion, more than 8 years, has had its effect in driving home the reality, that in a patriarchal social structure child marriage encourages gender inequality.
However, previous legislation that stipulates the legal age for marriage is not applicable to girls from the Muslim community and neither tounderage men and women in informal unions or underage pregnant women who go onto live with a partner. So, the overarching objective of the new bill is to allow the protection of the law to every citizen of Sri Lanka, irrespective of race and religion, thereby making marriage consensual and not coerced. If passed, the Act will be asignificant demonstration of the State’s commitment to the elimination of child marriage.
The challenge is to keep the fight relevant and relentless until the bill is passed through parliament. Activists and NGOs must be supported by professional organisations, representedby men and women in the corporate sector, together with members of the medical and legal fraternity and the academia.The media too can rise to the occasion to use its vast platform to create the urgent visibility the issue begs for. Their voices of support must rise above the objections against imposing a minimum age of marriage for girls, which incidentally seems to be the loudest coming from the men. Patriarchy is continuing to dictate the terms of women’s wellbeing even in this instance and this fight has been going on for too long, and if we fail this time, more and more girls are going to fall victim to child marriage. The intergenerational cycle of poverty will continue and with robbed opportunity to education, there is hardly any hope for the girl child to escape thisordeal. Even if the proposed bill becomes law, there will still remain the challenge of retaining girls in school, as there is nothing to stop them from cohabiting outside marriage and becoming young mothers below the age of 18. Crucial as it may seem, UNICEF envisages that if the girl child can be empowered through education, every country will be richer in terms of producing girls who will be “better able to nourish and care for their children, leading to healthier, smaller families.”