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July 7 2022 11:12 AM ˚
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Amid pandemic, activists say 10% of 2020 marriages involved minors

Activists and experts warn that the pandemic brought with it a spike in child marriages. A report by SIGI says that one in ten marriages in 2020 involved minors. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Activists and experts warn that the pandemic brought with it a spike in child marriages. A report by SIGI says that one in ten marriages in 2020 involved minors. (Photo: Shutterstock)
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AMMAN — The switch to online learning and the increase in school dropouts may lead to an rise in child marriage, according to a new report from the Sisterhood Is Global Institute (SIGI), or Tadamon.اضافة اعلان

According to the report, distance education and the subsequent rise in school dropouts “open the door wide for families, especially poor ones, to marry underage girls.”

“From day one, with the lockdown, this was something that we’ve raised the flag on,” said Salma Nims, Secretary-General of the Jordanian National Commission for Women (JNCW), in an interview with Jordan News

She pointed out that for the most vulnerable families, distance learning is challenging because of a lack of access to smart devices and internet connections, adding that if families do have devices, they may prioritize them for boys’ education. “So we expected that in vulnerable groups, this would lead to increase of child marriage.”

A total of 90,000 marriage contracts for minors have been issued over the past 10 years in Jordan, according to SIGI. They reported that 7,964 minors were married in 2020, a 10 percent increase from the 7,224 minors married in 2019. The highest number of minors married in the past decade was 10,907, recorded in 2016. A total of 11.8 percent of the total number of regular marriage contracts involved minors. 

These values only account for officially registered marriages. A UNICEF study from 2019 pointed out that informal – and thus undocumented — marriages also take place, especially among Syrian refugees. UNICEF has also said that some statistics about early marriage may be misleading, as traditional engagements are registered as legal marriages, “but the marriage may not be consummated until a later date, often a year or two from the date of contractual marriage.” The study found that parents employ a variety of strategies to have minors married, including “recording of a higher age than the actual age, arranging the marriage contract in Syria, or using their connections to get the judge to invoke the exception clause.”

According to Muna Abbas, country director for Plan International in Jordan, there are two main reasons the pandemic may increase underage marriages. The first is the disruption in education caused by lack of access to online learning, as Nims suggested. “When you take out the option of education for girls, the alternative would be either being involved more and more in domestic work or the option of getting them married,” she said. 

Abbas explained that through surveys, Plan International has found that during the pandemic, girls have taken on more and more domestic work, helping their younger siblings with their homework and assisting with cooking and cleaning around the house at the expense of their own education. These pressures encourage them to abandon school entirely — and open the door to marriage.

“Once children are outside school, this is the result. Mostly girls are getting married and more boys are going out to work in the informal sector,” Nims likewise said. She pointed out that when girls leave school, it is incredibly difficult to encourage them to return. 

“I do not see those who are married or those who left school (returning) to school” when the pandemic eases and schools reopen, she said. 

Nims added that while some argue that girls who marry underage have already dropped out of school, this is “not always the reality.” 

There are legal protections for married students to continue their education. Article (6) of the Private Schools Instructions No. (1) of 1980 states: “A married female student is permitted to study in private schools based on the official attested certificates that she holds,” which also applies to public schools. But according to Abbas, school officials may put pressure on married girls to leave school out of concern that the girl may get pregnant and expose other students to “information that they’re not supposed to know if they’re not married.”

Around a third (33 percent) of illiterate Jordanian women were married at the age of 17 or younger, according to a 2015 paper based on the Jordan General Population and Housing Census.

The other cause for an increase in early marriage, according to Abbas, is the economic pressure of the pandemic. “We know early marriage has always been one of the negative coping mechanisms for financial crises that communities go through,” Abbas said. “It’s one less mouth to feed.” She emphasized that the coping mechanism is particularly common in Syrian families, many of whom depend on either aid from organizations like UNHCR or low-paying wage from daily work in the informal sector and are particularly hard-hit by the pandemic.  

Nims also identified another motivator behind early marriage: societal pressures. She pointed out that many girls lack “a support system telling her this is not the only option, and it doesn’t have to be the option now.” “We are in a society that believes the earlier she gets married, the better. Because later, the chances of getting married decrease,” she said. Abbas added that most girls who marry underage, marry boys who are not much older than themselves and who are unprepared to start a family.

In line with new regulations that came into effect in 2017, the Chief Justice Department must give approval for any marriage of children aged 15 to 18. Abbas explained that although technically 18 is the age of legal marriage in Jordan, the problem lies in judges’ discretion to grant exceptions to that law. “This is a crack where all these violations are taking place.”

Both Abbas and Nims emphasized the need for the country to provide resources to both delay marriage for girls and to keep married girls in school, despite social stigma. “If opening schools is not possible, we need to make sure that we reach out to these girls, provide them with devices, connect them with groups where they can get support and education, and work with parents,” Abbas said. “And also provide economic solutions for the root of the problem.”

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