BEIRUT: The National Commission for Lebanese Women Tuesday launched a campaign to fight underage marriage, an initiative that legal experts anticipate will engender backlash from religious authorities. The two-year campaign organized by the commission and the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World and the nonprofit KAFA seeks to pressure leaders in the country to adopt laws to curb early-age marriage, a phenomenon that experts say has been on the rise since the surge of Syrian refugees to Lebanon after 2011.
“The Lebanese legislation has adopted several laws that protect minors after the marriage has taken place, but laws to prevent such marriages are lacking,” said Fadi Karam, the secretary-general of the commission, during the event at the Lebanese American University’s Irwin Hall. “Legislators should adopt laws to ensure that minors are fully prepared for marriage, from a health and psychological standpoint, and that they have given consent.”
Among those on hand during the launch were Speaker Nabih Berri’s wife Randa, who was representing first lady Wafa Sleiman, and various former ministers.
Karam said the campaign, which is still in its early stages, would lobby for the government to sign and ratify the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages and work to adopt of a law raising the minimum marriageable age to 18, a motion that would, ideally, supersede personal status laws which currently govern legal procedures pertaining to such matters.
For Muslims, separate religious courts hear personal status cases from Sunni and Shiite petitioners. There is no minimum age of marriage that applies universally to all Lebanese, rather the different sects’ personal status laws define the legal age of consent.
Among Sunnis and Shiites, girls as young as 9 can marry if approval is granted by a sheikh.
“Protecting minors from early age marriage is a difficult subject because of Lebanon’s sectarian society,” Mount Lebanon Judge Arlette Tabet said. “We want to start working on drafting a law that secures the right of the civil judiciary to be the main reference in cases where minors need protection.”
But Samira Aghacy, the director of the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World, based at LAU, said backlash from religious authorities would certainly impede efforts to pass a civil law regulating marriage.
“Religious authorities are in power, they are very influential and they are not ready to give into anything,” she said. Implementing laws to make licensing underage marriages more difficult, such as requiring medical assessments, would be a more realistic alternative, she said.
Judge Fawzi Khamis, the head of the juvenile court in Beirut from 2004-09, argued that the current legal framework in Lebanon allowed for some latitude to protect minors from being married off.
“While I was on duty [as head of the juvenile court], I issued two sentences to protect two minors, but they were deemed incompatible with the rulings of the religious courts,” he said. “However, the general commission of the Court of Cassation, the highest civil judicial commission in Lebanon, backed my decision, saying that the rulings of the juvenile court did not constitute a breach of the religious court’s authority because it seeks to protect minors from certain danger.”
A preliminary study carried out by Tabet and Khamis found that many Lebanese men were seeking underage Syrian girls for the purpose of marriage.
Early marriages are especially prevalent in impoverished rural areas where parents are swayed by the promise of a dowry sum to assuage their financial difficulties.