Frances Bulathsinghala reports on her findings after a field visit to Eastern Sri Lanka
To 58 year old Mohammed Saleem Lebbe, living in the East Sri Lankan colony of Ashraff Nagar in Addalaichenai, giving his daughter in marriage at the age of 15 was not something unusual. In fact, he was merely replicating his own marriage when he took a 13 year old as his spouse.
He reminisces with indifference about his decision to marry off his school-going daughter. For him it was an economic necessity. Working as a laborer, he saw no purpose in continuing to educate his three daughters after their early teens. But his wife regrets agreeing to disrupt the education of her daughter. She only hopes that a better fate awaits her two female grand children.
“There was a 23 year old carpenter who had sufficient monthly income. He was willing to marry our daughter without a dowry, so we agreed,” says Sajida, the 40 years old mother.
Fortunately, daughter Rafia, now 27, does not suffer abuse at the husband’s hands like many others she knows who married as young as her. Nevertheless, the family legacy of poverty remains. The house they have built with some financial assistance from an NGO is half built and is totally devoid of any furniture. She struggles to maintain a small grocery store in a part of her house to earn an additional income. But what she and her husband earn has to be divided between her parents and her sisters.
Twenty three year old Zaithun recalls how she married at the age of 14 and insists that she never consented to the marriage. Arranged by her widowed mother to a jobless man, the marriage lasted less than a month.
“He wanted me to sell the only small plot of land my parents had, on which we have now built this house. The person who brought the marriage proposal to my mother lied about his financial background. I went to the Quazi court and requested a divorce under the Fasah system and that was granted,” Zaithun said.
She provides for her aged mother by working at a retail shop as well as the house of a local businessman.
“I have to work from 6 am to 2 pm at the shop and then from 4 pm to 8 pm at the house of the owners,” Zaithun says. She gets a paltry LKR 4,000 (around 30 USD) per month for her toil in two places throughout the day.
The incomplete two roomed house they live in, has her sister too. The sister’s husband had abandoned her with three young children without paying child support.
“He just left us after eight years of marriage. I complained to the Quazi courts but they have not been able to get him to pay compensation,” she says.
In Oluvil, Fazeena, who was married off at 14, points to knife marks on her arms and legs and narrates how her alcoholic husband threatens to kill her. Her husband has been successful in preventing the Quazi court from granting her request for divorce by insisting that he has been loyal to his wife.
“He is a laborer and he spends all his money on alcohol. I tried to apply for divorce when I was 16 after I had my first child. But the Quazi court said that I was a mere child, that I did not know anything about the world and therefore I should not think of a divorce,” she recalls.
Fazeena is now 33 years old. Her goal is to somehow divorce her husband and spare her children the trauma witnessing violence at home daily.
“He beats me. He beats the children. I have to depend on my parents to support the education of my three daughters and son. I will make any sacrifice to educate my daughters and spare them a child marriage like mine. I fear my children might suffer the same fate as my husband keeps regularly asking my 14 year old daughter if she wants to marry,” Fazeena said, breaking into tears.
The Muslim law in Sri Lanka which allows the marriage of young girls as young as 12 is based on the liberal Indonesian model introduced by the Dutch in 1707. The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act MMDA of 1951, also known as Muslim Personal Law, allows marriage of 12 year old girls but on the condition that the registration of marriages of girls below 12 has had a prior inquiry and authorization by a Quazi. But in practice, marriage with a girl below 12 is valid even without a Quazi’s approval.
A high percentage of Sri Lankan Muslim families get their girls married off before they attain 18 – the statutory age of marriage in Sri Lanka, according a new study entitled: 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 1000 Muslim female heads of household which says that 42% of the respondents were married below the age of 18.The reasons given for early marriage were mainly: “family tradition and customs” (55%) and “economic reasons including protection and security” (23%).
Records of Muslim marriage registration in Kattankudy, an all-Muslim town in the Eastern Province, indicated that in 2015, 22% of all marriages were with a bride below 18 years of age. This is a considerable increase from 2014 when the figure was 14%.
In Puttalam district on the Western coast, and Batticaloa district on the Eastern coast, the age of arranged marriages varied between 14 and 17.
Sec 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 twelve years and not judicially separated from the man”.
This was inserted to excuse Muslim men married to 12 year olds.
Early marriage may lead to early divorce, the study says. According to women volunteers who assist affected women, one of the main reasons for husbands’ seeking divorce from wives who are minors is that they are “unfit to have sex” or are “unable to do housework”.
The Humanitarian Elevation Organization (HEO) is a social organization located in Addalaichnai. Headed by a male but run by women, HEO speaks of the changes needed in the MMDA.
Kairudeen N. Ahamed, head of HEO, states that some of the recommendations their organization has suggested are for the minimum age of marriage for the female to be made 18; the consent of the female to be made compulsory; the registration of marriage to be made compulsory and to change the current practice of only males signing the marriage document.
Ahamed, like many other activists, believes that in the MMDA, the woman should be an equal participant in the marriage process as mentioned in the Koran. Although it is not an Islamic practice for the female to give dowry, it is a common social practice and a burden to many families and should be discouraged, Ahamed says.
He points out that by keeping marriage registration optional, under the current practice, it is increasingly hard for Muslim women to prove they have been married and to get child care support in case of abandonment by the husband.
Activists point out that one of the key obstacles to securing justice within the Quazi court system is that it is monopolized by men. They want women in the Quazi Board.
Inclusion of male responsibility in a marriage, especially in the upbringing of children; and assessment by the Quazi board of the financial background and suitability of the male prior to marriage, are other demands.
Female sociologist and lecturer at the South Eastern University in Oluvil, M.Y.M.Suheera said: “We want the amendment of the Muslim Law in Sri Lanka to be in full accordance with Islamic teachings where women are honored and seen as an equal player in marriage. This issue of child marriage in Sri Lanka should be looked at as a sociological problem and not as a religious problem. Any cultural backwardness that affects the girl child should be stopped by proper policies backed by law and in accordance with Islam.”
The Sri Lankan government has decided to amend the Muslim Personal Law in order to comply with international conventions on women and children’s rights and has appointed a cabinet Sub Committee to propose amendments to the law.
Well known human rights activist Jezima Ismail, who is in the personal law reform committee set up in 2009 under Justice Saleem Marsoof, assures that the committee’s final recommendations will be presented by the end of November. The recommendations would be a culmination of work started in 1976 by women’s rights groups such as the Muslim Women’s Action Forum. But she declined to say what exactly the changes would be.
“We have considered all the recommendations we have received, and we assure that it will be safeguarding equality and rights that are found in the ideals of Islam,” Ismail said.
The Sri Lanka Thawheed Jamaath (SLTJ), the ultra radical Muslim representation in Sri Lanka, opposes amendments to the MMDA charging that the government is changing the law only to get the European Union’s GSP Plus trade concessions. The government has denied this. Amendment of the MMDA is not one of the 15 conditions laid by the EU to get the trade concessions back.
Reform of the MMDA stems from other factors such as : the drafting of a new constitution for Sri Lanka; demands by Muslim women’s groups that the MMDA should be cleansed of gender biases and Muslim women given rights enjoyed by other Sri Lankan women; the need to comply with international human rights conventions signed by Sri Lanka; and the requirement to comply with the UN Human Rights Council resolution of October 1, 2015.
(Names have been changed at the request of those quoted)