Image Credit: REUTERS

Ramallah: Early marriage is a harmful reality for thousands of young women in the Palestinian Territories with local Sharia courts allowing women at age 15 or younger to marry.

Opponents claim that early marriage has extremely harmful effects on women and that sharply increasing numbers of divorce cases involving women married young is evidence of this.

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, a total of 22.2 per cent of women who tied the knot during 2011 were 15 years old or younger. As many as 8,000 out of the 36,000 women who married in the Palestinian Territories (West Bank and Gaza Strip) in 2011 were 15 years old and the number is expected to increase in the current year (2012).

Palestinian women’s organisations are currently waging a fierce war against early marriage at the Palestinian Sharia Courts.

Speaking to Gulf News, Rawdah Baseer, a woman activist and head of the Palestinian Women Studies Centre, said that the Sharia courts officially conduct marriage contacts for girls at the age of 14 years and nine months. “This is a serious violation of women’s basic rights,” she said.

“We know that the majority of divorced women in the Palestinian Territories were married at such an early age,” she said.

The women’s organisations have already addressed the early marriage issue with many Sharia judges who have lodged a request with the Palestinian Higher Sharia Court for an immediate increase in women’s marriageable age.

Yousuf Edays, who heads the Palestinian Higher Sharia Court, acknowledges that the current Palestinian law officially allows women to marry at the age of 15, but maintains that focus should be on adulthood (18 years old).

Women’s organisations currently handle the issue of early marriage on the basis of individual cases. Women activists reach out to families intending to get their daughters married early and address this issue directly with them. “We work on raising the public awareness of the families,” said Baseer, “but this strategy is not producing the desired results.”

She said that so far there have been no accurate official statistics on this phenomenon in male-dominated Palestinian society. “Many social and societal features of Palestinian society should be corrected instantly,” she said.

A woman, she explained, is able to apply for a driving licence and open a bank account at the age of 18, and must be 16 to obtain an identity card. “How can she get married and be fully responsible for a family at the age of 15 years or less?” she said. “Bearing kids at an early age harms the woman’s physically and Palestinian women who get married at an early age suffer medical complications that older women do not.”

Many sources claim that men desire to marry young women and as a result it is common to find a huge age difference between a couple in the Palestinian Territories.