AMMAN: Underage marriage in Jordan surged last year during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic due to increased financial hardship among poorer families, human rights groups warned.
The number of underage marriages registered in Sharia courts jumped by almost 12 percent from 2019 to 2020, according to new data from the Chief Islamic Justice Department.
While Jordanian civil law puts the legal age for marriage at 18 for both men and women, it also allows for exceptions for those aged 15 and above if a judge deems it in their best interests.
The sharp increase has led to calls for a change in the law and, in the meantime, a push to pressure judges to reduce the number of marriages granted.
Secretary-General of the Jordanian National Commission for Women Salma Al-Nims blamed the pandemic and the resulting economic burdens, and school dropout rates for the “skyrocketing” increase in underage marriages.
“From the very beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, the commission has been warning that distance learning would deepen social problems and would increase child labor and school dropouts and, consequently, underage marriage,” Al-Nims told Arab News.
“Only yesterday, I heard that a 15-year-old girl got married and when I inquired about the reason, I learned that her family said ‘yes’ because the groom was rich. How come the judge approved it?”
Of the 67,389 marriage contracts registered in 2020 in Sharia courts, 7,964 were for girls under the age of 18. This compares to 7,224 in 2019 after the numbers had decreased from a peak of more than 10,000 in 2016.
Even more worrying is that the 2020 figure includes more than 2,000 marriages involving girls aged 15. Just 194 of the marriages included boys aged under 18.
Lawyer and human rights activist Saddam Abu Azzam described the increase in child marriage cases as “horrific” and “stomach-turning.”
“Even if it was a single case, that figure is still high,” Abu Azzam, director of the Jordanian parliament’s research center, said.
He argued that approving marriages for girls and boys under 18 years of age is a “violation” of basic human rights, attributing the increase to Jordanian laws and a lobby of Sharia judges obstructing efforts to completely ban the marriage of adolescents.
“Those judges, unfortunately, believe that child marriage is Islamic and is an answer to several economic and social problems,” he said.
Abu Azzam called for abolishing the section of the law that says exceptions can be made for some under the age of 18.
“The problem is that Sharia judges misuse the law and expand the exceptions granted to them and the proof for that is in the increasing cases of child marriage,” he said.
Abu Azzam said that while marriage is viewed as bringing stability, prosperity, and social cohesion, the highest divorce rates in the Arab region are registered in Jordan and most are among couples less than 28 years of age. More than 90 percent of child marriages end in divorce, Abu Azzam said.
The Solidarity Is Global Institute in Jordan (SIGI), a charity that published a report on the figures, has also called for a law change.
In 2018, the group launched a national campaign to eradicate child marriage named “Nujoud” after a 10-year-old Yemeni girl who was physically and sexually abused during a two-month marriage allowed by the courts.
The Chief Islamic Justice Department said child marriage is more prominent among Jordan’s Syrian refugee population, who are “increasingly relying on child marriage as a coping mechanism.”
The department said that in 2018, one in three of the registered marriages of Syrians in Jordan involved someone under the age of 18.
According to UNICEF, family disintegration, poverty, and lack of education are considered to be some of the key factors behind an increase in the rate of child marriage among refugees.
The increase in Jordan is mirrored globally with 37,000 girls under the age of 18 married every day. According to the UN, one in three girls in the developing world are married before they reach 18 and one in nine before 15.
“If present trends continue, more than 140 million girls will be married before the age of 18 in the next decade,” the UN said in a 2019 report.
In Jordan, campaigners are at least pushing for judges to make a difference between biological maturity and social and economic maturity when they grant permission for marriages.
“Many Islamic schools define ‘competence’ as social and economic maturity rather than biological maturity,” Al-Nims said.
“Instead of limiting the exceptions granted to them, judges are unfortunately expanding them. The problem in Jordan is the fact that there is really a lack of institutionalized efforts to completely end child marriage.”