Striving for a better future | Sunday Observer

Striving for a better future

Thameem Fatheema Sharmila was only 16 years when she was taken to Nallanthaluwa Kodi Palli Mosque in Munthal, Puttalam to give away her hand in marriage to 22-year-old Mohammed Imran.

Little did she know that her life was about to turn upside down, after this marriage. Being married off against her will, Sharmila did not know that Imran was already married twice before, and that she was his third wife. According to reports, the marriage was not properly officiated.

Being the innocent prey of child marriage permitted in Muslim Law, Sharmila was not only a victim of the law, but also a victim of domestic violence.

She was constantly subjected to physical and mental abuse on a daily basis. She once attempted to obtain a divorce from the Quazi Courts (the special court for civil disputes among Muslims) but failed, as she had no access to obtain basic information.

Sharmila bore all her burdens for the sake of her child who was born seven months ago, when she was 17 years.

Four months ago she realized she was pregnant with her second child as well. Imran’s level of patience and humanity were lost and Sharmila faced a fate that she never would have thought she would have to go through.

It was Friday, May 19, when Imran tied her up onto a chair, poured oil over her body and set her on fire. After a struggle between life and death, she breathed her final breath the next day, May 20, with her unborn baby. Imran had threatened her not to spill a word against him, and if she does, he would hurt the baby as well.

The police immediately started investigations against him, who was on the run after this tragic and cruel act that he committed.

Legal background

This is only one among many unheard stories of abused Muslim child brides. Marriage, according to the Muslim Law takes the nature of a civil contract. According to custom a girl who attains 15 years can be married with the permission of the Sharia authorities.

The non-inclusion of a minimum age of marriage for Muslim girls has led them to be exploited in many ways, especially, sexually. This personal law contradicts with the general law of the country where the minimum age of marriage for both males and females is 18.

Age limits have been prescribed by the law in many areas of human activity. The law does not permit a person under the age of 18, to drive a motor vehicle; to vote at an election; enter into a contract.

The rationale for denying persons who have not attained the age of majority is that they are deemed to be lacking in maturity of judgement and the degree of responsibility necessary to engage in such activities.

So, what is the rationale behind allowing a young girl to enter into a civil contract as deep and complicated as a marriage? Entering into a marriage carries responsibilities far beyond the above mentioned acts.

A girl should be, especially, prepared for commitments mentally, as well as physically. Immaturity, mentally and physically, and the lack of consent are bars that should be set before girls are married off to older men as child brides.

The Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, in the third chapter on Fundamental Rights states in Article 16, that all existing written laws and unwritten laws shall be valid notwithstanding any inconsistencies within the fundamental rights chapter.

This contradicts Article 12(1) of the Constitution that protects equality before the law and Article 12(4) that upholds affirmative action for special protection for certain minority communities such as women and children. The Constitution is the supreme law of the country and should apply equally to all citizens.

Upholding of the provisions on equality have become problematic due to the prevalence of Article 16.

This acts as a derogation of human rights. The solution is not to abolish all personal laws with the aim of offending any minorities or their religious representatives.

Being in line with international human rights standards is of paramount importance.

The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination (CEDAW) to which Sri Lanka is a long-term signatory clearly states in Article 16 (b) that women have the right to freely choose a spouse and enter into marriage only with her free and full consent.These principles have also been adopted in the Sri Lankan Women’s Charter in Article 7, which has sadly been confined only to the black letter law.

Progressive change

The lack of proper legal protection and inter-law contradictions have now made life worse for not only Sharmila, but for many other Muslim girls. Times have arrived where the law makers should stop turning a blind eye towards these matters and be more vigilant in protecting the rights of the people. Women’s Rights, and particularly, the Rights of the girl child have been in public discourse widely, both at national and international levels.

Respect for every religion and culture should prevail, while the protection of individual rights is guaranteed. It would largely benefit the future of our nation and the economy of the country.

Thus, it is time to consider whether changing the legal framework would be the sole resolution for the problem. It is also the collective responsibility of Muslims as a community to open their eyes towards this discrimination against their own community.

Moreover, we must not forget the fact that the necessity of a long term and a more pragmatic solution for this issue is of paramount importance for us now as a nation, than it has ever been before.