LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – More than 1,500 girls under the age of 10 were forcibly married in Iran last year, according to rights campaigners who accused judges in the country of sanctioning child rape.
Activists also condemned a law passed this month that will allow men to marry their adopted daughters from the age of 13. They said Iran was legalising child sex abuse within the family.
Marriage records in Iran show 31,364 girls under 15 were married off last year, including 1,537 who were under 10, according to a report called Stolen Lives, Empty Classrooms by London-based pressure group Justice For Iran.
But researchers said the actual figure would be higher as they could only obtain records for three-quarters of Iran’s 32 provinces while many child marriages are not registered.
“I was very shocked by the statistics. Every 15 minutes a young girl is forced into a marriage that may put her at risk of rape, domestic abuse and death in child birth,” said researcher Leila Moeeni.
Campaigners say many girls who marry young die from childbirth complications, while others are driven to suicide. There are also reports of very young girls dying from injuries caused by sexual intercourse after marriage.
The law in Iran allows girls to be married at 13 and boys at 15, but girls can be married younger with a judge’s permission.
“These judges are approving the rape of girls by allowing these marriages because there is no genuine consent,” said Shadi Sadr, a human rights lawyer with Justice for Iran.
The law says judges are only obliged to approve a marriage if it is in the child’s interests, but Sadr said child marriage was never beneficial.
“Child marriage has very, very bad consequences,” she added. “It increases the risk of sexual and domestic violence, and girls are deprived of the right to education and work. Girl marriages are forced marriages so any sexual intercourse is rape.”
“NORMALISING SEXUAL ABUSE”
There are no comparative figures for previous years, but the report said Iran’s national census showed marriages involving girls under 15 increased to 39,831 in 2011 from 33,383 in 2006.
Given the decline in the population of girls aged 10-14 over the same period, Shadi said this represented a 35 percent rise in the rate of girl marriages.
Campaigners said they were also alarmed by a law approved this month allowing guardians to marry an adopted child.
“This law is very dangerous because of the impact it will have on our culture. It is normalising the sexual abuse of children within the family,” added Sadr.
“With this law, a paedophile can just adopt a child and then marry her, and this will be sanctioned by the court.”
Sadr said the law’s supporters argue it will resolve the problem of girls always having to remain covered up in front of their adopted fathers. By marrying their guardian, girls will be able to take off their hijab (headscarf) in the house.
The report did not examine the reasons for the rise in child marriages, but Moeeni said poverty was a factor. Parents may marry off their daughter young so they no longer have to support her and can receive a dowry payment.
Moeeni said senior clerics endorsed early marriage, encouraged by the law and government policies. The mainstream media also promotes early marriage.
Many clerics in Iran say Sharia law allows girls to marry at nine, which became the legal age for marriage in 1982 – following the Islamic Revolution – and remained so until 2002.
Sexual relations outside marriage are forbidden in Islamic law, which underpins Iranian law. Politicians and clergy often endorse child marriage as a way of protecting teenagers from sinning.
The report showed over 90 percent of registered marriages involving girls under 10 were in Ardebil – a northwestern rural province with low literacy levels.
Marriages between 10 and 14 were most prevalent in the large northeastern province of Khorasan Razavi, which accounted for more than a fifth of the 29,827 girls married in this age bracket.
Moeeni said child marriage was also practised in at least two provinces that did not provide figures – Sistan and Baluchistan and Bushehr.
Iran has signed several international treaties that ban child marriage and forced marriage.
The report calls on Iran to:
- Ban marriages under 18
- Ban marriages between guardians and adopted children
- Hold judges accountable for the approval of child marriages
- Provide reparations for child marriage victims