against Early Marriage in Muslim Countries and Communities
The Problem of Early Marriage*
Early marriage is defined as marriage of children and adolescents
below the age of 18. A UNICEF report states that even though the
age of marriage is generally on the rise, early marriage is still
widely practiced, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
However, in the Middle East, North Africa and other parts of Asia,
marriage at or shortly after puberty is common among those living
traditional lifestyles. There are also specific parts of West
and East Africa and of South Asia where marriages much earlier
than puberty are not unusual, while marriages of girls between
the ages of 16-18 are common in parts of Latin America and in
pockets of Eastern Europe.
Parents choose to marry off their daughters early for a number
of reasons. Poor families may regard a young girl as an economic
burden and her marriage as a necessary survival strategy for her
family. They may think that early marriage offers protection for
their daughter from the dangers of sexual assault, or more generally,
offers the care of a male guardian. Early marriage may also be
seen as a strategy to avoid girls becoming pregnant outside marriage.
Gender discrimination can also underpin early marriage. Girls
may be married young to ensure obedience and subservience within
their husband's household and to maximise their childbearing.
Early marriage can have serious harmful consequences for children,
- Denial of childhood and adolescence: the loss of childhood and
adolescence, the forced sexual relations and the denial of freedom
and personal development have profound psychosocial and emotional
consequences on girls.
- Denial of education: Once married, girls tend not to go to school.
- Health problems: These include premature pregnancies, which
cause higher rates of maternal and infant mortality. Teenage girls
are also more vulnerable to sexually-transmitted infections, including
- Abuse: This is common in child marriages. In addition, children
who refuse to marry or who choose a marriage partner against the
wishes of their parents are often punished or even killed by their
families in so-called 'honour killings.'
A UNESCO report examining laws on children's rights and education
in 158 countries revealed that minimum ages for marriage vary
between seven and 18 years, with no legal minimum in as many as
37 countries. Forty-four states provide a lower limit for girls
than for boys.
But even in countries with legal minimum ages of marriage, early
marriage still prevails as it is condoned by religious and customary
laws and practice. The UNICEF report states it is hard to asses
the prevalence of early marriages as so many are unregisteredand
unofficial. Very little country data exist about marriages under
the age of 14, even less about those below age 10. But it says
there are grounds for believing that the practice is under-reported
in areas where it is known to occur, especially for children under
14 who are virtually invisible in standard data recording.
The UNICEF report calls for a range of policy and programmatic
actions to reduce early marriage and its impact. It recommends
various forms of national advocacy campaigns, including:
- Campaigning to raise the legal age of marriage or to ensure
implementation of the legal age of marriage;
- Promoting an effective system of registration of births, marriages
- Setting up small-scale studies into implications of early marriage
and publication of the findings of such studies;
- Using national and international Women's Days to raise awareness;
via social mobilization involving women's networks, opinion leaders
at the national level, politicians and community leaders;
- Working with the media and other communication channels to emphasize
female rights, including equality, access to education and freedom
from exploitation and discrimination;
- Working with men to promote attitudinal change.
The report also points out to a serious lack of data on all aspects
of early marriage. While existing sources examine early marriage
in terms of demographic trends, fertility and educational attainment,
few studies have examined the practice from a human rights perspective,
in terms of trends or its impact on wives, husbands, families,
or the wider society.
It recommends further research on:
- Prevalence, especially among sub-groups whose marriage characteristics
are submerged in national data, disaggregated by age and sex;
- Social and economic determinants influencing the age of marriage,
particularly those that cause it to rise. Comparative case studies
of situations where early marriage is declining instead of increasing
will help to identify these determinants;
- Evaluation of the impact of early marriage: psychosocial effects
on the early married; social and economic impact on families and
- Early marriage in high stress situations brought about by war,
HIV/AIDS, acute urban and rural poverty, and among refugee and
Strategies and Challenges in Muslim Societies
Any campaign to reduce the practice of early marriage in traditional
Muslim societies may face particular criticisms and challenges
from the conservative religious perspective. The usual arguments
- It is against the authentic hadith as it was reported in Sahih
al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim that the Prophet Muhammad saw married
Aishah when she was six years old and consummated the marriage
when she reached puberty at the age of nine. Muslims must therefore
follow the Sunnah of the Prophet saw and any effort to outlaw
early marriage can be considered unIslamic.
- Sex outside of marriage is forbidden in Islam. Since humans
develop sexual urges at puberty, early marriage is the Islamic
solution to deal with natural sexual desire. Marriage should be
allowed when a girl reaches puberty because "Puberty=Maturity=Marriage".
- Puberty is an age old symbol of adulthood in all cultures and
religions. People were considered ready for marriage when they
reached puberty. From an Islamic point of view, many problems
in society today can be traced back to the abandonment of early
- Men and women were created to be attracted to one another. For
Muslims living in societies where there is no or little gender
segregation and where they are continually exposed to sexual promiscuity
in the media and the larger society, early marriage ensures that
sex happens only within marriage.
- Muslims who are embarrassed that the Prophet saw married Aishah
at such a young age, deny the authentic sources or question their
authenticity or just ignore the Sunnah, while still claiming to
be followers of the Ahl as-Sunnah. Such Muslims are "Westoxicated",
their minds still colonized by the West.
In the face of such challenges, activists in Muslim communities
need to address some of the more pertinent arguments with facts
and data and new research.
· On the Hadith: There are now studies which challenge the
accuracy of Aishah's age at the time of her marriage to the Prophet
saw. Two studies assert that it is more likely that Aishah was
19-years-old at the time of her marriage.
· The question needs to be posed to those who support early
marriage on the basis of the practice of the Prophet saw: Why
is the Prophet's marriage to Aishah selected as the exemplary
age of marriage for Muslims while his marriage to Khadija, a widow
15 years older than him or his marriage to other widows and divorcees
ignored as exemplary practices? Moreover, the marriage practice
of the Prophet saw should not be regarded as normative for the
ummah. There is an explicit verse in the Qur'an that refers to
his marriages as exceptional.
· Those who support early marriage on the basis of the Sunnah
of the Prophet saw also argue that the practice was not criticized
by his contemporaries as marriage at the time of a girl's puberty
was the norm of his times in all cultures and religions. This
means the practice should be contextually understood. Given a
changing set of circumstances with available data on the harmful
impact of early marriage on a girl's well-being, then the practice
can change and that it is not unIslamic to campaign to reduce
the incidence of early marriage. There is a principle developed
by Muslim jurists to close the door to negative consequences.
This is one such door.
· Does puberty = maturity = marriage? Much research is available
to challenge this assumption from economic, health, social and
individual development perspectives. Marriage is not just about
This site provides a listing of articles and links which we hope
will be useful for groups planning to campaign to reduce the incidence
of early marriage in Muslim societies.
The materials listed include:
Alternative views on early marriage within the Islamic perspective.
Niyaz Ahmad summarized by Muhammad Khalid Masud: Could Aishah
be 19-years-old at the time of her marriage to Prophet saw Muhammad?
An Examination of Hadith Collections.
Ghulam Nabi Muslim Sahib:
Aishah's Age of Marriage
Carla Makhlouf Obermeyer:
Religious Doctrine, State Ideology, and Reproductive Options in
Hameed Agberemi: Violence
Against Girl Children in a Rights Paradigm: Deconstructing Child
Marriage from Islamic Perspectives
Articles and studies on the problem of early marriage.
Innocenti Digest: Early Marriage: Child Spouses
International Center for
Research on Women: Too Young to Wed: the lives, rights, and health
of young married girls
The Population Council: Child Marriage: Country Briefing Sheets
Campaigns to reduce the incidence of early marriage or to raise
the legal age of marriage or to implement the legal minimum age
campaigns in Senegal< (Links)
Meena Communication Initiative in South Asia< (Links)
The Times of India: Debate
on Age of Marriage for Muslim Girls in India
Laws on minimum age of marriage, consent to marriage, and child
marriage in selected Muslim countries
Family Law project, Emory University: Islamic Family Law, comparative
Links to websites that provide useful data for campaigns against
Council: Transitions to Adulthood Married Adolescents/First-Time
Parents - Child Marriage< (Links)
Nations Children's Fund< (Links)
Documents in Arabic
- Egyptian Early Marriage Study
Online - Survey on Early Marriage
and Law - Jordan - Marriage
* This section is extracted from: "Early Marriage- Child Spouses",
Innocenti Digest, no 7, March 2001, a report by the UNICEF Innocenti
Research Centre, Florence, Italy. http://www.unicef-icdc.org/publications/pdf/digest7e.pdf