BEIRUT: Early marriages are making an unwelcome comeback in impoverished Lebanese villages and among the Palestinian refugee community, spurred on by the global economic crisis and harmful gender stereotypes, women’s rights activists warned Monday. Child brides are seen as more of a problem in countries like Saudi Arabia or Yemen but have been steadily increasing in poor areas throughout Lebanon over recent years. Girls as young as 13 are being married off by their parents with damaging consequences on their education and psychological and physical well-being, experts said.
The remarks came at a regional women’s rights conference organized by the non-governmental organization Developmental Action without Borders (Nabaa) and Movement for Peace (MPDL) with support from Spain’s embassy in Beirut.
Faten Sabah, a researcher at Nabaa, said the global economic crisis was pushing poor families to marry off their daughters in an effort to relieve financial pressures on the household. “In Lebanon, the phenomenon of early marriage is reappearing … This is the start of violations against women’s rights,” she said, noting that early pregnancies could have dangerous health implications for both mother and baby.
Out of 77 Palestinian girls interviewed in south Lebanon by Nabaa, some 46.75 percent of 17 year olds and around 32 percent of 16 year olds were already married, she said, adding that there was a clear correlation between the girls’ education level and age at time of marriage.
“Most acknowledged their marriage was early and expressed some regret,” she said, with some 74 percent of all child brides saying family pressure had pushed them into marrying. Women who had married early were more likely to fight with their husbands, experience social isolation and less likely to return to formal education, Sabah added.
The poor villages of Mujid and Bibnin in Akkar, north Lebanon, are witnessing similar increases in child brides, too. After Israel’s 34-day war on Lebanon in July 2006, observers also noted an increase in “exchange marriages,” where a person’s sister is given almost as a dowry in exchange for the sister of someone else, Merhi said.
Lebanese law has adopted the same definition of “child” as described by the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which Beirut signed in 1991. According to the convention, and for the purpose of civil obligations and contracts, a child is any person below the age of 18. The marriage of anyone under this age, then, is considered a breach of the convention.
But in some Muslim circles, girls as young as 9 are deemed suitable for marriage, Merhi said. The minimum age at which girls can marry is lower than boys in all of Lebanon’s religious courts, which govern personal status affairs such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance.
Lebanon has signed several international treaties on the rights of the child, but enforcement remains problematic. Beirut became party to the Convention’s Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, in 2004. It also signed the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict in February 2002 but has yet to ratify it.
“Another choice other than early marriage must be given to these women,” stressed Joumana Merhi, executive director of the Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering. “It is very important to find opportunities for these girls.”
Jesus Saenz Denis, International for the Middle East at MPDL, praised Nabaa officials for their work among the Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon.
These activities “demonstrate they don’t just come and talk about women’s right, but enforce them” through concrete action in the camps, he said, pointing to the organization’s work in providing education and vocational training to Palestinian girls.
Despite the encouraging work being done, Denis said more work on women’s rights was needed. “This conference will not be enough. You must keep fighting in your communities every single day for women’s rights, which are human rights themselves.”