(Beirut) – Lebanon’s parliament should quickly pass legislation to end child marriage in the country, Human Rights Watch said today.

The parliament building in downtown Beirut, Lebanon October 27, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters

Lebanon has no minimum age for marriage for all of its citizens or any civil code regulating personal status matters. Instead, religious courts set the age based on 15 personal status laws, some of which allow girls younger than 15 to marry. A draft law, introduced on March 28, 2017, would set the minimum age for marriage at 18, with no exceptions.

“Legislation prohibiting child marriage is long overdue for Lebanon,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Setting 18 as the national minimum age for marriage will go a long way toward protecting children from the horrors of early marriage.”

Legislation prohibiting child marriage is long overdue for Lebanon. Setting 18 as the national minimum age for marriage will go a long way toward protecting children from the horrors of early marriage.

Lama Fakih

Deputy Middle East Director

The draft law would penalize anyone contributing to or complicit in the marriage of a child with fines equal to 10 times the minimum wage and prison sentences ranging from six months to two years. The bill was prepared by the Lebanese Women’s Democratic Gathering and introduced by Elie Keirouz, a member of parliament.

According to a 2016 UNICEF report, six percent of women in Lebanon ages 20 to 24 married before they turned 18. Child marriage appears to be on the rise among the more than 1 million Syrian refugees in the country, with one 2017 study finding that 24 percent of refugee girls ages 15 to 17 are married. Women’s rights organizations in Lebanon, including Kafa and Abaad, have long worked on campaigns to set the minimum age for marriage at 18.

Early marriage can have dire lifelong consequences, often halting or harming a girl’s ability to realize a wide range of human rights, Human Rights Watch said. Girls who marry early are more likely to leave school and are at heightened risk of marital rape, domestic violence, poor access to decent work, exploitation, and a range of health problems due to early childbearing.

The benefits of ending child marriage are transformative and far-reaching. Tackling child marriage is a strategic way to advance women’s rights and empowerment in several areas, including health, education, work, freedom from violence, and participation in public life, Human Rights Watch said.

In addition to passing the law and ensuring enforcement, Lebanon’s authorities should pursue criminal cases against adult spouses, parents, and local authorities who continue the practice. Authorities should also develop programs to prevent child marriages such as empowering girls with information and support networks, ensuring girls’ access to quality education, and engaging and educating parents and community members about the negative effects of child marriage.

Lebanon is party to a number of international conventions that explicitly prohibit or have been interpreted to prohibit child marriage, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The United Nations committees that oversee their implementation have also called for state parties to set the minimum age for marriage at 18 and to take measures to eliminate child marriage.

A number of other countries in the Middle East and North Africa have set the minimum age for marriage at 18 or higher, with some allowing exceptions in limited circumstances. These include: Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.

Lebanon’s parliament should take additional steps to protect women’s rights in the country, Human Rights Watch said. It should criminalize marital rape and repeal article 522 of the penal code, which allows rapists to escape prosecution by marrying their victims.

“Setting 18 as the minimum age of marriage is a common-sense measure that will have a real impact on the lives of girls in Lebanon,” Fakih said. “Parliament should pass the law without delay.”