Underage marriage (called also minor marriage) may be defined as marriage under the legal age. The legal age in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) varies between 13 (in Iran) and 20 in Tunisia. Many Gulf countries, such as Saudi Arabia, have not established a legal age of marriage.
In spite of progress in family law in many countries, such as Morocco where the legal marriage age was raised from 14 to 18, and changes in family structure in the countries of the MENA region and the concomitant emergence of nuclear families, underage marriage still exists. Approximately one of five girls in this region is married off before the age of 18. There is variation among countries, ranging from 2 per cent in Algeria to 32 per cent in Yemen. In Iran, forty thousand girls under the age of 15 are married off each year. This phenomenon will only grow, with the turmoil in Syria and other countries of the region.
Underage marriage has many complex reasons, which may be divided into two main types, related, respectively, to poverty and religious dogma.
Poverty is a corollary of a host of related marginalizing and crippling conditions, such as illiteracy, ignorance of rights, and lack of choice. Divorce, domestic violence, drug addiction, and psychological problems abound in such contexts. All of these factors push parents—or, in the absence of the father, just mothers—to marry off their daughters as soon as a husband can be found. This haste to “get rid”of the girl is accentuated by the perceived need to preserve the “honour” of the family and avoid social shame and humiliation.
Another increasingly common motive related to poverty is the need for money. This phenomenon is attested especially in Egypt, where young girls are literally sold off to wealthy husbands in the Gulf. The same phenomenon is found in Morocco, where poor families “send off,” for money, their daughters to older and already married richer husbands in the wealthy Gulf countries.Most sexually exploited minors in the MENA region come from economically fragile families. In these families, female illiteracy is the norm, eliminating choice. For example, the Moroccan network Azzahraev conducted a case study in 2012 that showed that the illiteracy rate of underage married girls’parents is 53.7 per cent for mothers and 27.9 per cent for fathers. Indeed, it is rare to find an educated mother marrying off her daughter to “get rid” of her. The level of education, especially that of the mother, is crucial also in providing appropriate family care for her daughters, such as reinforcing them against various problems such as drug-use, especially during adolescence.
In addition to illiteracy, and sometimes because of it, the already poor situation of the family may be worsened by family dislocation. Most sexually exploited minors come from unstable families characterized by the absence of the father, children born outside marriage, adoption, or domestic violence. In such situations, girls do not generally develop a strong relationship with their parents, whom they often see as bad examples. The absence of a parent role-model, parental authority, and discipline create deep psychological divisions in the family.
Paradoxically, and in spite of the risk of social problems in poor families, the social value of honour is especially strong among the poor in the MENA region. Underage marriage may thus be justified because it “saves the family’s honour,” as is the case in Jordan, for example. Underage marriage, extreme violence, and suicide are attested in the case of the Moroccan Amina Filali, who committed suicide in 2012 after she was obliged to marry her rapist in order to save her family’s reputation. This incident pushed many feminist NGOs and human-rights organizations to demonstrate against underage marriage. This activism led to a change in Article 475, from allowing a rapist to marry his victim to decreeing a 30-year prison term for such a crime.
The underage marriage of girls in poor, marginalized, and fragile families in the MENA region is increasing because of the deteriorating economic situation. The second type of reason for underage marriage is the religiously-based perceived need to take “preemptive measures”to “protect”girls from spinsterhood. With the strong return of Islamic conservatism after the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, more and more fatwas on the benefits of marrying very young girls have been issued in the region. Social-media conversations indicate a fear of well educated and Westernized women and a preference for younger “inexperienced” girls. In these often heated debates, theological justifications—such as the fact that the Prophet married his last wife, Aisha, when she was nine—are put forward.
Whatever the case and whatever the justification used, these girls are the victims of acts in which they have no say. They are sexually exploited and are denied the right to choose in important decisions, such as marriage, on which their entire lives depend.
More recently, the extreme violence and sex slavery that have accompanied the rise of jihadism in 2014-2015 put women at even greater risk. Very young girls are being sold in the marketplace like sheep. This threatens any hope women might have of legal rights, such as the setting of the marriage age at 18. Just before the outbreak of war in Yemen in March 2015, there was talk of ending child marriage, a window of hope in the country that had, at that time, the most cases of the underage marriage of girls. In November 2015, with war raging in Yemen and the extremely unstable situation throughout the MENA region, conflict and war present a bleak and frightening vision of the future of underage marriage there.