Jordan raises 'exceptional' marriage age to 16

The move has been welcomed by women's rights activists, who hope it is the first step to phasing out the law, which allows child marriage, altogther

In this Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017  photo, bridal gowns and engagement dresses are displayed in a small shop in the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in northern Jordan. A new study based on Jordanian census figures shows that child marriages are up sharply among Syrian refugee girls in the kingdom, and that 44 percent of Syrian females getting married in 2015 were minors. (AP Photo/Reem Saad)

Jordan’s parliament has voted to raise the minimum age of marriage in “exceptional” cases from 15 to 16 in a move that has been seen as an important step towards reducing child marriage rates in the country.

The minimum age for marriage in Jordan is 18, however, in some cases, a judge can approve a marriage to a minor if a sharia committee deems it necessary and both parties consent.

On Monday, politicians passed a measure to raise the minimum age for marriage in these exceptional cases from 15 to 16.

Women’s rights activists in Jordan welcomed the move as a first step towards eliminating the exception rule altogether.

"We understand that it does not seem like a big increase, but for us every additional day matters," Eval Abu Halaweh, director of the Mizan Law Group, a Jordanian NGO that provides legal assistance to vulnerable people, told The National. The organisation consulted with MPs on the change to the law.

In 2017, 13.4 per cent of all marriage contracts issued were for underaged brides, but only 0.4 per cent were for underaged grooms.

By at least reaching 16 before marrying, activists say children will have had the chance to complete Grade 10. A completion certificate is a requirement for teenagers who want to take up vocational training or menial jobs and allows them to take university entrance exams.

Under Jordanian law, underage marriage can only take place if the age difference between the bride and groom does not exceed 15 years, and if the groom can prove they are able to pay a dowry and financially support their wife.

A court committee must also confirm that the groom is not currently married and that the union would not mean the bride would not be forced to drop out of school or stop her studies.

MPs argued that lifting the age of the exception from 15 to 16 will help reduce the overall number of child marriages in Jordan.

“We would be open to keeping the exception in the law if the rate of child marriage was between 1 and 5 per cent,” said Ms Halaweh.

“But with almost 14 per cent of all marriages in Jordan involving minors, this is becoming a standard and not an exception, and we must work gradually to phase it out.”

Jordan’s Iftaa Department, the highest religious authority, however, said in a statement to local press that certain “moral and social necessities” may require families to seek marriage for their daughter before she is 18. They said that getting rid of the law that allows these exceptions could lead to social “corruption” as girls who became pregnant out of wedlock would not be able to wed.

Politicians and community leaders argued that the marriages allow families to save face and prevent so-called honour crimes, when social stigma may force a family to take extreme measures, even going as far as to murder a loved one, to clear their reputation.

In statements to MPs and senators, women’s rights groups urged the government to find additional measures to protect vulnerable minors.

Last week, watchdog Human Rights Watch urged Jordanian politicians to end the “abusive practice” of child marriage and seize the opportunity to enforce the minimum age of 18 without exception.

Jordan has witnessed a surge in child marriages over the past six years, in part due to the influx of 1.2 million Syrian refugees — the highest percentages of child marriages occur in northern governorates where there are large Syrian communities.

Many Syrian refugees come from rural areas where child marriage is more common and their displacement has also driven families to marry their daughters off to “protect their honour” while they are living in vulnerable circumstances.