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Early Marriage

Campaign against Early Marriage in Muslim Countries and Communities

The Problem of Early Marriage*

Early marriage is defined as marriage of children and adolescents below the age of 18. A UNICEF report states that even though the age of marriage is generally on the rise, early marriage is still widely practiced, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. However, in the Middle East, North Africa and other parts of Asia, marriage at or shortly after puberty is common among those living traditional lifestyles. There are also specific parts of West and East Africa and of South Asia where marriages much earlier than puberty are not unusual, while marriages of girls between the ages of 16-18 are common in parts of Latin America and in pockets of Eastern Europe.

Parents choose to marry off their daughters early for a number of reasons. Poor families may regard a young girl as an economic burden and her marriage as a necessary survival strategy for her family. They may think that early marriage offers protection for their daughter from the dangers of sexual assault, or more generally, offers the care of a male guardian. Early marriage may also be seen as a strategy to avoid girls becoming pregnant outside marriage.

Gender discrimination can also underpin early marriage. Girls may be married young to ensure obedience and subservience within their husband's household and to maximise their childbearing.

Early marriage can have serious harmful consequences for children, including:

- Denial of childhood and adolescence: the loss of childhood and adolescence, the forced sexual relations and the denial of freedom and personal development have profound psychosocial and emotional consequences on girls.
- Denial of education: Once married, girls tend not to go to school.
- Health problems: These include premature pregnancies, which cause higher rates of maternal and infant mortality. Teenage girls are also more vulnerable to sexually-transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS.
- Abuse: This is common in child marriages. In addition, children who refuse to marry or who choose a marriage partner against the wishes of their parents are often punished or even killed by their families in so-called 'honour killings.'

A UNESCO report examining laws on children's rights and education in 158 countries revealed that minimum ages for marriage vary between seven and 18 years, with no legal minimum in as many as 37 countries. Forty-four states provide a lower limit for girls than for boys.

But even in countries with legal minimum ages of marriage, early marriage still prevails as it is condoned by religious and customary laws and practice. The UNICEF report states it is hard to asses the prevalence of early marriages as so many are unregisteredand unofficial. Very little country data exist about marriages under the age of 14, even less about those below age 10. But it says there are grounds for believing that the practice is under-reported in areas where it is known to occur, especially for children under 14 who are virtually invisible in standard data recording.

The UNICEF report calls for a range of policy and programmatic actions to reduce early marriage and its impact. It recommends various forms of national advocacy campaigns, including:

- Campaigning to raise the legal age of marriage or to ensure implementation of the legal age of marriage;
- Promoting an effective system of registration of births, marriages and deaths;
- Setting up small-scale studies into implications of early marriage and publication of the findings of such studies;
- Using national and international Women's Days to raise awareness; via social mobilization involving women's networks, opinion leaders at the national level, politicians and community leaders;
- Working with the media and other communication channels to emphasize female rights, including equality, access to education and freedom from exploitation and discrimination;
- Working with men to promote attitudinal change.

The report also points out to a serious lack of data on all aspects of early marriage. While existing sources examine early marriage in terms of demographic trends, fertility and educational attainment, few studies have examined the practice from a human rights perspective, in terms of trends or its impact on wives, husbands, families, or the wider society.

It recommends further research on:

- Prevalence, especially among sub-groups whose marriage characteristics are submerged in national data, disaggregated by age and sex;
- Social and economic determinants influencing the age of marriage, particularly those that cause it to rise. Comparative case studies of situations where early marriage is declining instead of increasing will help to identify these determinants;
- Evaluation of the impact of early marriage: psychosocial effects on the early married; social and economic impact on families and societies;
- Early marriage in high stress situations brought about by war, HIV/AIDS, acute urban and rural poverty, and among refugee and displaced populations.

Strategies and Challenges in Muslim Societies

Any campaign to reduce the practice of early marriage in traditional Muslim societies may face particular criticisms and challenges from the conservative religious perspective. The usual arguments used include:

- It is against the authentic hadith as it was reported in Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim that the Prophet Muhammad saw married Aishah when she was six years old and consummated the marriage when she reached puberty at the age of nine. Muslims must therefore follow the Sunnah of the Prophet saw and any effort to outlaw early marriage can be considered unIslamic.
- Sex outside of marriage is forbidden in Islam. Since humans develop sexual urges at puberty, early marriage is the Islamic solution to deal with natural sexual desire. Marriage should be allowed when a girl reaches puberty because "Puberty=Maturity=Marriage".
- Puberty is an age old symbol of adulthood in all cultures and religions. People were considered ready for marriage when they reached puberty. From an Islamic point of view, many problems in society today can be traced back to the abandonment of early marriage.
- Men and women were created to be attracted to one another. For Muslims living in societies where there is no or little gender segregation and where they are continually exposed to sexual promiscuity in the media and the larger society, early marriage ensures that sex happens only within marriage.
- Muslims who are embarrassed that the Prophet saw married Aishah at such a young age, deny the authentic sources or question their authenticity or just ignore the Sunnah, while still claiming to be followers of the Ahl as-Sunnah. Such Muslims are "Westoxicated", their minds still colonized by the West.

In the face of such challenges, activists in Muslim communities need to address some of the more pertinent arguments with facts and data and new research.

· On the Hadith: There are now studies which challenge the accuracy of Aishah's age at the time of her marriage to the Prophet saw. Two studies assert that it is more likely that Aishah was 19-years-old at the time of her marriage.

· The question needs to be posed to those who support early marriage on the basis of the practice of the Prophet saw: Why is the Prophet's marriage to Aishah selected as the exemplary age of marriage for Muslims while his marriage to Khadija, a widow 15 years older than him or his marriage to other widows and divorcees ignored as exemplary practices? Moreover, the marriage practice of the Prophet saw should not be regarded as normative for the ummah. There is an explicit verse in the Qur'an that refers to his marriages as exceptional.

· Those who support early marriage on the basis of the Sunnah of the Prophet saw also argue that the practice was not criticized by his contemporaries as marriage at the time of a girl's puberty was the norm of his times in all cultures and religions. This means the practice should be contextually understood. Given a changing set of circumstances with available data on the harmful impact of early marriage on a girl's well-being, then the practice can change and that it is not unIslamic to campaign to reduce the incidence of early marriage. There is a principle developed by Muslim jurists to close the door to negative consequences. This is one such door.

· Does puberty = maturity = marriage? Much research is available to challenge this assumption from economic, health, social and individual development perspectives. Marriage is not just about biology.

This site provides a listing of articles and links which we hope will be useful for groups planning to campaign to reduce the incidence of early marriage in Muslim societies.

The materials listed include:

Alternative views on early marriage within the Islamic perspective.

Hakim Niyaz Ahmad summarized by Muhammad Khalid Masud: Could Aishah be 19-years-old at the time of her marriage to Prophet saw Muhammad? An Examination of Hadith Collections.
Ghulam Nabi Muslim Sahib: Aishah's Age of Marriage
Carla Makhlouf Obermeyer: Religious Doctrine, State Ideology, and Reproductive Options in Islam
Hameed Agberemi: Violence Against Girl Children in a Rights Paradigm: Deconstructing Child Marriage from Islamic Perspectives

Articles and studies on the problem of early marriage.

UNICEF Innocenti Digest: Early Marriage: Child Spouses
International Center for Research on Women: Too Young to Wed: the lives, rights, and health of young married girls

The Population Council: Child Marriage: Country Briefing Sheets

Campaigns to reduce the incidence of early marriage or to raise the legal age of marriage or to implement the legal minimum age of marriage.

Tostan campaigns in Senegal< (Links)
UNICEF: Meena Communication Initiative in South Asia< (Links)
The Times of India: Debate on Age of Marriage for Muslim Girls in India

Laws on minimum age of marriage, consent to marriage, and child marriage in selected Muslim countries

Islamic Family Law project, Emory University: Islamic Family Law, comparative chart (Links)

Links to websites that provide useful data for campaigns against early marriage.

Population Council: Transitions to Adulthood Married Adolescents/First-Time Parents - Child Marriage< (Links)
United Nations Children's Fund< (Links)

Documents in Arabic

Al-Inany - Egyptian Early Marriage Study
Islam Online - Survey on Early Marriage
Women and Law - Jordan - Marriage

* This section is extracted from: "Early Marriage- Child Spouses", Innocenti Digest, no 7, March 2001, a report by the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, Florence, Italy.

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Responsibility for the facts and opinions expressed in this website rests solely with the authors.
Their views do not necessarily reflect those of the Rights at Home project/ISIM

Alternative views on early marriage

Articles and studies on the problem


Laws on minimum age of marriage

Links to websites

Documents in Arabic