Religious leaders ready to compromise on Lebanon’s child marriage draft law - but will women’s rights groups?

by Martin Jay

18 October 2014 | 08:07

  • by Martin Jay
  • Last update: 18 October 2014 | 08:07

After years of resistance, mainly from religious groups, Lebanon is edging slowly towards adopting laws to curtail the practice of child brides – a phenomena brought to the attention of media recently with the influx of over 1 million Syrian refugees. 

A draft law regulating child marriages in Lebanon was discussed by the Human Rights parliamentary Commission last Tuesday (14th of October). Ministers, lawyers, and social activists are optimistic about the impacts this law would have in case it gets endorsed.

There is still some resistance to it though but not from where most might expect. While women’s rights group are widely expected to support such a law, KAFA (Enough Violence and Exploitation) objects to it in its present form. The group said that it found in it “an infringement and blatant violation of the rights of children and people’s right to choose their own life and future, and a consecration of violent and harmful practices.” KAFA thinks the draft only serves “the sectarian authority in Lebanon.” 

In its statement earlier this month, KAFA insisted that the law should have “a specific unified minimum age for marriage that is imposed on all sects.”

Yet some religious leaders don’t agree. Islamic Sheikh and Judge Zakaria Ghandour believes that age in itself doesn’t show whether or not a person is ready to marry on not. “The identity doesn’t define the person. The person defines his identity,” he said.

Furthermore, dispelling the commonly held myth that religious leaders are totally against laws for minors’ marriage, Ghandour told An Nahar that he was ready to accept the draft:  “The Sharia gave us the rules on which to build a home; the sharia leads, but the law regulates” he explained. 

Concerning KAFA’s criticism of the draft, Fadi Karam, secretary general of the National Commission for Lebanese Women, assured An Nahar that “we and KAFA, in principal, don’t have a conflict. We would all love to have a civil law in Lebanon.”

Rita Chemaly, a social activist and a project development consultant at the National Commission for Lebanese Women takes a less somnolent approach to the issue. “Now, there’s nothing to protect us. Once we get our periods, our fathers marry us off!” she argues passionately.

If Lebanon is not secular “should I hit my head on the wall? And let girls get married at 13, get pregnant and die, or let their babies die?!” she exclaimed.

Karam shared Chemaly’s concern and insisted that they want to make sure “the father doesn’t sell his daughter, and that the daughter doesn’t get married to her uncle.”

Indeed, minors’ marriage cases in Lebanon have increased with the influx of Syrian refugees. According to experts, poverty plays a big role in this because some parents resort to selling their daughters in exchange of money. There have been a number of reported cases of teenager girls marrying the landlords of the property which is housing them after her family lose all their savings and are no longer able to pay the monthly rent.

 “He has no mind, or religion, or morals he who sells his daughter for dirhams! It’s crossing the red and green lights!” said Ghandour with conviction.

When it comes to marriage, he believes that both men and women “should have a mind, a capacity to understand and absorb, and a [healthy and mature] body” in order to tie the knot. Without these components the institution of marriage gets ruined, and “if the family is corrupted, the society will be corrupted.”

Ghandour insisted that “the judge should be the rational person who stops any mistakes from happening.”

The Sheikh was referring to Sharia judges; yet, Chemaly still believes religious leaders are still failing to integrate themselves into the issue. “Religious men are moving to the beat of their own drum! If they can’t protect their religions’ followers, we will protect them for them,” she said.

Accordingly, Karam explained that if there is “a difference in the points of view” between religious and civil courts, the Juvenile Criminal Court would have the final say in the case at hand.

MP Michel Moussa, the head of the Human Rights parliamentary Commission, agreed that the ultimate step forward would be amending the constitution, article 9. Despite the impossibility of doing so now “we shouldn’t stop pushing forward, through penalties and by making the process of underage marriage harder.”

Article 9 guarantees “the free exercise of all religious rites provided that public order is not disturbed” and “that the personal status and religious interests of the population […] shall be respected.” Because any law that contradicts this item is deemed unconstitutional and therefore ineffective, drafters believe the draft law – which regulates minors’ marriage and is constitutional – should be welcome.

The draft will next be “discussed legally and technically by the Justice and Administration Committee,” said Moussa, “and the committee will listen to the comments of all the different parties, including KAFA.”

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