Human-Rights Activists Win Partial Victory In Battle Against Child Marriage

By Charles Recknagel/Azam Gorgin

Iranian human-rights activists have won a partial victory in their long battle to protect children from being married off by their parents before they begin puberty. After months of deliberation, Iranian authorities recently approved a law that requires court approval for the marriage of girls below the age of 13 and boys younger than 15.

Prague, 28 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- There are no official statistics for how many young children in Iran are married off by their parents before they become teenagers. But the practice has long been considered commonplace in the countryside and in smaller towns where traditional values rule. There, parents often arrange marriages for their children long before the children themselves are old enough to give their informed consent.

Such child marriages not only are sanctioned by tradition, they also are permitted under Iran's legal code. The law permits parents to marry off girls at the age of 9 and boys at the age of 14.

Now, however, Iranian human-rights activists have won a partial victory in a long-running battle to raise the marriage age for children.

This month, Iranian authorities approved a law requiring parents to obtain court permission for marriages of girls under the age of 13 and of boys younger than 15. At the same time, children above those ages will be allowed to marry voluntarily.

The new law is only a partial victory because Iran's reformist-dominated parliament originally had sought to extend the protection of the courts to girls under 15 and boys under 18 -- age limits higher than the law approved this month. But that higher age limit, which the parliament approved in August 2000, was challenged by the hard-line-dominated Guardian Council in a dispute that went unresolved for almost two years.

This month, the dispute between the parliament and the Guardian Council, which is responsible for assuring that legislation conforms to the values of Iran's Islamic Revolution, ended in a ruling by an arbitrating body, the Expediency Council. That council provided no details as to how its decision was reached.

Supporters of the new law say it will help reduce the number of teenage marriages in Iran and ease international criticism of the country's human-rights record. European governments, in particular, have previously criticized child marriages in Iran as a violation of human rights. Iran has sought over past years to increase its economic ties with Europe, and European states have often stressed that closer ties should include discussions of human-rights issues.

Zohreh Arzani, a female attorney in Tehran, told RFE/RL Persian Service correspondent Mahmonir Rahimi recently that the new law is a step forward for Iranian children's rights. "This is a step forward compared to legislation of 19 years ago, which said marriage before maturity is forbidden unless it is at the father's or grandfather's discretion, which, in essence, meant they could marry them off to anyone they wanted. Now, at least, they have raised the girl's age to 13 and have added a clause that [the marriage] has to be at the courts' discretion," Arzani said.

One female reformist, Fatemah Khatami, said that the new law is particularly due to the efforts of women lawmakers, who have sought to increase legal protections for girls and women. She told the Associated Press that, "This is yet another fulfillment of the promises of reformists, and especially of female lawmakers, who had promised to protect women's rights." But she added: "Still, we have a long way to go to provide adequate legal protection for women."

Yet some supporters of the new law, while welcoming it, feel it falls disappointingly short of the reformists' original hopes of sharply reducing the frequency of teenage marriage. A female member of parliament, Fatemah Rakeii, told reporters this week that even a boy of 18 years would be psychologically and economically unfit to start a family, while a girl of 15 remains a child.

The current law makes little provision for the fact that, while it extends the courts' protection to underage children, individual judges will have the power to give their permission for child marriages on a case-by-case basis. That may mean that in particularly conservative and traditional areas, some courts will respect the wishes of parents who wish to marry off their children before puberty.

Sociologists in Iran say parents who marry off their children, and particularly girls, at very young ages usually do so out of economic necessity. Abdulreza Kordi, a professor at the women's university of Al-Zahra in Tehran, told RFE/RL's Persian Service that families in tough economic straits view early marriage as a way to ease the burden of supporting their children. "Whenever there is an economic struggle, the parents' automatic defense mechanism is to transfer the burden, that is, to marry [some of the children] off. And in some cases, unpleasant traditions or tribal customs are the reason for these marriages," Kordi said.

That could mean that so long as many Iranians continue to face financial hardships, some families will continue to seek to marry off very young children. Iran's economy is struggling with double-digit inflation and unemployment and currently is unable to absorb large numbers of young job seekers entering the marketplace each year.

The Iranian government has made reviving the country's economy -- many sectors of which are dominated by inefficient quasi-state organizations -- a top priority. But so far, economic reforms have been slowed by political divisions over how to convert Iran's socialist-style economy into a competitive free-market system without risking social unrest.

Copyright (c) 2003. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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