Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am very pleased to be here with you today to discuss solutions to prevent child marriages in Lebanon, a subject very dear to my heart as a father of 3 young girls.
This workshop takes place at a time of a substantial increase in child marriage. Child marriage is an issue that affects all cohorts in Lebanon – Lebanese girls, Syrian Refugees, and Palestinians Refugees. According to UNICEF Baseline Survey published in 2016 on Lebanon, the highest percentage of women currently married or in union between the age of 15 years old and 19 can be found among Syrian Refugees at 27 percent, followed by Palestinian Refugees from Syria at 13 percent, and four percent for both Lebanese Women and Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon.
Contrary to conventional thoughts, this is not an issue that is limited to rural communities but it extends to all regions. For the Lebanese girls who are between 15 and 19 years old and currently married or in union, the percentage in the North Governorate (Tripoli and Akkar) and in Baalbeck is between 8 and 10%, much higher than the national trend of 4%.
Multiple reasons were found behind such high rates. For Lebanese, reasons include deteriorating socio-economic situation of families during the last years, inadequate health services, poor education, lower education of mothers, and of course the weak legal and enforcement mechanism.
The lack of a nationwide agreement on the minimum age of marriage in Lebanon is a source of concern. All legal procedures on matters pertaining to marriage, divorce, and inheritance are governed by the different personal status laws of the religious communities. This means that the minimum age for marriage is set by the various communities, with guardian permission or judicial permission, and can go as low as 15 for males and 9 for females.
Access to education in addition to restrictive social norms are also considered important causes. According to UNICEF study, the women with higher education are less likely to be married than women with no education or primary education; 8 percent of Lebanese women who had no education were married before 15, compared to 1 percent of women who had higher education.
Data doesn’t show a strong correlation of early marriage and education for Syrian women. We know from surveys conducted on early marriage inside Syria before the war that this issue is not only related to social norms, but more with the displacement. For the Syrian refugees, the predominant reasons for child marriage are the prolonged displacement, families unable to meet basic needs, fear for the safety and security of the girls, lack of economic opportunities and access to financial means.
We still have also today far too many cases of very young Lebanese girls forced to marry someone who is much older. It is not only depriving these young girls from basic rights such as education but it also exposes them to situation of violence.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Child marriage deprives children from fundamental rights, the right of their development, freedom of expression, protection from all forms of abuse and the right to be protected from harmful traditional practices. Child marriage also often results in early pregnancy and social isolation, with little education and poor vocational training, thus reinforcing the gendered nature of poverty. Early marriage may in worst cases lead to human trafficking and organized crime, sexual abuse, and marital rape. Early marriage can even lead to death, related to early pregnancies.
The issue of child marriage is addressed in several international conventions and agreements; in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and indirectly linked to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Also, the Sustainable Development Goals commit us to eliminate harmful gender practices including early, and forced marriage. It is paramount that Lebanon, as part of its commitment towards the SDGs and all mentioned conventions addresses this challenge.
Given the complexity of the phenomena, we need a holistic approach to address it. An approach that tackles poverty, lack of awareness and lack of access to education and that provides essential related policies and laws. An approach that recognizes it affects all communities in Lebanese and that it involves all of us from the religious leaders, civil society organizations, the government and legislators. We should build on national progress.
I am pleased to note that the Higher Council for Childhood (with UNICEF support) is working on developing a comprehensive multi-sectoral national strategy to address child marriage that will include a review of the legal framework. But bringing an end to child marriage, therefore, is a matter of national priorities and political will. It requires effective legal frameworks that protect the rights of the children involved and it requires enforcement of those laws in compliance with human rights standards.
We should tap into the resources and opportunities Lebanon provides, such as a vibrant and active civil society, technical support of international organizations, but also the high levels of female literacy and the relative freedom for women. We should work together to prevent the harms of child marriage through concrete programs for family planning that address health, education, and safety.
It is vital to support children to get out of the cycle of vulnerability, violence, and exploitation. I hope today’s workshop will generate new ideas on how to achieve this goal.