While Islamic scholars in Sri Lanka are finding excuses to uphold child marriages, a 17-year-old Muslim schoolgirl from the country’s north-west tried to kill herself in order to stop her marriage with a stranger.
While she was recovering in hospital after swallowing a bottle of her mother’s diabetes pills, nothing stopped her parents from registering the marriage under Sri Lanka’s Family Law that applies only to Muslims. Under this law, which does not stipulate a minimum age for marriage, a bride’s consent is not required. A quazi’s approval is needed only when children under the age of 12 or older are married. The law exempts Muslims from prosecution for statutory rape providing the victim is married to the perpetrator and is 12 or older.
Sri Lankans belonging to other religions marry under the General Marriage Registration Ordinance, which sets the minimum age at 18. Muslim marriages and divorces are governed by the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, under which polygamy is not an offence, and husbands can get instant divorces.
Activists, who are demanding amendments to Muslim personal law, believe that Muslim girls have to often give up education to marry, and parents/guardians lie about their age when giving them in marriage. Some marriages are not even registered, they say. A government committee appointed in 2009 is struggling to reconcile divergent views before bringing about amendments to Muslim personal law.
But Islamic scholars maintain child marriages are rare, with some conservative Muslims saying the Quran permits child marriage.