Woman lawmaker takes on child marriage in Jordan

In 2017, nearly 10,500 girls in Jordan were married before reaching their 18th birthdays.
Thursday 28/02/2019
Bridal gowns and engagement dresses on display in a small shop in northern Jordan. (AP)
For adults only. Bridal gowns and engagement dresses on display in a small shop in northern Jordan. (AP)

BEIRUT - A Jordanian lawmaker, praised for her role in abolishing a law that allowed rapists to escape criminal charges if they married their victims, has set tackling child marriage as her next challenge.

Nearly 10,500 girls in Jordan were married before reaching their 18th birthday in 2017, figures from UNICEF state. Globally, 12 million girls marry before age 18 every year, said Girls Not Brides, a coalition working to end child marriage.

Girls in Jordan can be married from age 15 with a judge's approval, even though the legal marriageable age is 18. Lawmaker Wafa Bani Mustafa said even raising the limit to 16 would reduce the numbers.

"This is not an exception. This is something that is happening every day and too many young girls are getting married," Bani Mustafa said recently in Beirut. "I am very optimistic child marriage will decrease if we change the age to 16. It doesn't matter if they are Jordanian or Syrian, we need to protect all girls."

A significant proportion of the girls marrying are believed to be Syrian, refugees from Jordan's war-ravaged neighbour, with families marrying off daughters young to give them financial security and protection from sexual violence.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians fled their homeland since the war started in 2011 and there are more than 670,000 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan, the United Nations said.

"If you are not old enough to vote or drive a car, how can you open a house and build a family?" asked Bani Mustafa, one of 20 women in Jordan's 130-seat House of Representatives.

"We need to first change the culture by raising the age of exceptions to 16, then slowly maybe this will be the first step to making it to 18 with no exceptions."

Jordan's parliament voted in 2017 to abolish a law that allowed rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims after a years-long campaign led by Bani Mustafa. Now she is seeking a change to the law governing inheritance to ensure men and women have equal rights, arguing that it currently disadvantages women.

"If we push changing women's rights through law, it will change the culture of the society to accept women's rights. The law helps change our society's mentality," she said.

Bani Mustafa said there were legal provisions in Jordan to protect child brides, including a maximum 15-year age gap and the requirement that they be allowed to continue their education, but they were not being enforced.

"I will keep fighting for Jordanian women. Nothing will slow me down. We deserve better lives and equal rights to men. It is not easy but we have to keep fighting," she said.

"I think women's rights are slowly changing in Jordan."

(Thomson Reuters Foundation)