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Sri Lanka’s child marriage law under scrutiny as activists demand reform

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Sri Lanka is facing growing criticism for its failure to reform a decades-old law that allows child marriage among the Muslim minority, despite mounting evidence of the harm it causes to girls and women.

The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) of 1951 gives Muslim community leaders, who are mostly men, the power to decide the minimum age of marriage for girls, which can be as low as 12. The law also requires a male guardian’s consent for a girl’s marriage and denies women the right to divorce, inheritance and custody of children.

Activists say the law violates the rights of Muslim girls and women, exposes them to domestic violence, sexual abuse, poverty and health risks, and perpetuates gender inequality and social exclusion. They also argue that the law contradicts the common law of Sri Lanka, which sets the legal age of marriage at 18 for all citizens.

According to UNICEF, 10% of girls in Sri Lanka are married before the age of 18, and 1% are married before the age of 15. The prevalence of child marriage is higher among the Muslim community, which accounts for about 10% of the country’s population of 21 million.

A recent study by the Women’s Action Network (WAN), a coalition of women’s groups, found that many Muslim girls are forced into marriage by their families, often to older men, for economic or social reasons. The study also documented cases of physical, sexual and psychological abuse, marital rape, polygamy, abandonment and divorce among child brides.

“The MMDA is a legalized form of torture and abuse for Muslim girls and women,” said Shreen Saroor, a co-founder of WAN and a prominent human rights activist. “It is a violation of their dignity, autonomy and well-being. It is time for the government to act and end this injustice.”

Saroor and other activists have been campaigning for the reform of the MMDA for years, but have faced resistance from conservative Muslim religious leaders and politicians, who claim that the law is based on Islamic principles and cannot be changed.

In 2009, the government appointed a committee to review the MMDA and propose amendments, but the committee’s report, which was submitted in 2018, has not been made public or discussed in parliament. The report is said to recommend raising the minimum age of marriage to 18, with no exceptions and granting equal rights to women in matters of marriage and divorce.

However, some members of the committee, who represent the orthodox views of the Muslim community, have rejected the report and issued a separate statement, opposing any changes to the law and defending the status quo.

The government has been reluctant to intervene in the issue, citing the need to respect the diversity and autonomy of different religious and ethnic groups in the country, which is still recovering from a 26-year civil war that ended in 2009.

However, activists say the government has a duty to protect the rights of all citizens, regardless of their religion or ethnicity, and to uphold the international conventions that Sri Lanka has ratified, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

They also point out that other Muslim-majority countries, such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia and Morocco, have reformed their personal laws to prohibit child marriage and promote gender equality.

“We are not asking for anything radical or anti-Islamic. We are asking for the basic rights that every human being deserves,” said Saroor. “We hope that the government will listen to our voices and take action to end child marriage in Sri Lanka.”

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