Early marriage and education, the chicken or the egg?
Ramallah, November 19, 2016—“I wish I could do it now,” said 24-year-old West Bank resident Basma, of the education she abandoned a decade ago when she married her husband. “I did not feel it earlier, but now I regret it, especially when I help my children do their homework.”
When asked whose decision the marriage was, she said, “It was a funny story. When suitors came to the house for me and my sister, my father said, ‘So whoever goes to school tomorrow does not want to get married!’” Basma told the interviewer. “I said I would get married like the rest of the girls because marriage is good.”
Married at 14 to a man nine years her senior, Basma joined the 21.4 percent of West Bank females currently aged 20-49 years who first married before turning 18.
In October of 2016, Defense for Children International - Palestine collected six third-party interviews of West Bank women who married between the ages of 14 and 17. All six married adults, with spousal age gaps of six to 10 years. Their names have been altered to conceal their identities.
Of the women interviewed, two continued their education while four dropped out of school shortly after marrying. For two who dropped out, including Basma, disinterest in school or poor grades played a role. “I did not care that much about school, so there was no much to talk about,” Basma said.
For the other two women who left school, pregnancy, and their ensuing child-rearing responsibilities were the tipping points.
Dalia said that her husband initially supported her education, which she loved, and had planned to continue after she married at age 15. When she became pregnant one month later, Dalia said that her husband changed his mind.
“He got scared for the baby when I got pregnant and promised to let me go back to school the following year,” said Dalia. “But he did not agree the following year because of my little daughters and promised to let me do it the following year. I still have hope.”
Girls Not Brides reports that girls with no education are three times more likely to marry as children as those with a secondary or higher education. They add, though that “while it is not clear if child marriage causes school dropout or vice versa, it is clear that child marriage often means the end to a girls’ formal education.”
Available data on Palestinian early marriages in the West Bank does not pinpoint the causal relationship between access to education and early marriage. With Palestinian female literacy rates “among the highest in the Arab world” and exceptionally low female drop out rates in the West Bank, 3.1 percent compared to 3.5 percent of their male counterparts in secondary education, it appears that the Palestinian girls are already widely accessing their right to an education.
The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) report suggested that early marriage or engagement may have contributed to this attrition rate, but does not offer supporting evidence.
What is clear, is that Palestinian civil laws setting the minimum age for marriage at 15 for girls and 16 for boys in the West Bank, fall short of the best interests of the child.
Notably, although the minimum age for marriage in Gaza where the Egyptian Family Rights Law of 1954 applies, is higher, early marriage rates are also higher. This points to a need for consistent laws across both the West Bank and Gaza regarding marriage and more cross-sectional studies to understand how local environments are shaping the practice.
A study of UNWRA schools, which operate in Palestinian refugee camps, for example, sheds some light on the interaction between these two issues inside camp communities. The study found that early marriage figured into secondary causes for dropping out, among other socioeconomic factors.
In keeping with local laws, PCBS did not collect conclusive statistics on marriage before 18. However, 2014 data showed that early marriage disproportionately affects girls, with 43 percentof registered marriages involving a bride 14-19 years old, compared to less than 0.01 percent of grooms.
In the same year, brides under 14 only constituted 1.5 percent of registered marriages. This number may signal a slight decline in the under-15 early marriage rate, as compared to figures from a PCBS multiple-indicator cluster that asked ever-married females when they first married. The survey found that in 2014, approximately 2.1 percent of females aged 15-49 first married before turning 15.
Not captured in the 2014 PCBS data set, however, are informal, or otherwise unregistered marriages. Girls who marry below the legal age may not register or delay formal registration until they reach the legal age.
Amina’s interview illustrates this practice. When she wed at age 15, a sheikh performed a katib iktab, an agreement signed as part of Islamic marriage proceedings. Unlike Basma and Dalia, who registered their marriages at the court following the katib iktab, Amina and her husband did not register their marriage.
Alongside the need for an increased legal marriage age and data gathering efforts, some of the women interviewed had their own ideas for how the Palestinian government could increase protections to women already impacted by early marriage.
Amina, who also dropped out of school, believes that marriage contracts guarantees could help protect young brides’ education.
“There should be a law to include education in the marriage contract to guarantee that young girls have access to education,” said Amina. “Some of my schoolmates managed to finish school and even college, although some of them were pregnant and had children. You can do it if you put your mind to it.”