A new regulation at the Family Court requires underage couples applying for marriage to submit criminal records and police reports, in a bid to ensure that young girls are fully informed of their partner’s social standing.
Maldivian law allows girls and boys under the legal age of 18 to marry so long as they have reached puberty and have parental consent, and if the court finds no substantial reason to object to the union.
As of January 1, 2012, couples in which one or both partners is underage must now submit criminal records and a police report to the Family court, as well as confirmation of parental consent and medical reports.
The Marriage Registrar will also decide whether the couple holds a valid reason for marriage.
Speaking to Minivan News, Marriage Registrar Ahmed Abdullah said that the new regulation aims to “protect young girls” following observations that in most cases of underage marriage the applicant is a female below the age of 18 who wishes to marry a man of legal age. The man is sometimes found to hold a criminal record, he said.
Abdullah said that these criminal records are mainly related to drug offences- and that the girl and her parents are often “unaware” of them prior to the marriage.
However, he explained that the court would not decline a marriage request based on the criminal history of an applicant, as long as the legal requirements are met.
“Submission of criminal records would only help the girls and parents make a more informed decision about the partner”, Abdullah added.
Contrary to the assumption that most underage marriages in Muslim countries are “forced”, Abdullah assured that the court has not registered any marriage in which the court had identified the “slightest hint that any partner was forced”.
Rather, Abdullah claims that most girls applying to marry between the ages of 15 and 17 do so to escape poor living conditions.
“Most underage girls are from very poor backgrounds living in very harsh conditions, often with no parent or reliable guardian to support them,” said Abdullah. “So, they want to get a better life by marrying”.
In the event that a marriage request is denied, Abdullah said some girls write repeatedly, “pleading for approval”.
According to him, there are exceptional cases where the boy and girl come from very good backgrounds and “they want to get married because parents do not approve of relationships out of wedlock”.
“Most parents are scared their kids might make a mistake, that is why want them to get married,” Abdullah observed.
As a Muslim nation, the Maldives subscribes to social standards in keeping with Quranic teachings, which strictly regulate the relations between a man and a woman. While Maldivian culture similar opposes “dating” in the modern sense, the “boyfriend-girlfriend” relationship, or bitun, is fairly common.
Last year, almost 50 underage marriages were registered at the court.
Although the Maldives is known for its record-high divorce rate, Abdullah noted that the “divorce rate in under age marriages are surprisingly lower” than in legal age marriages.
Former Gender Minister Aneesa Ahmed argued that a lack of information and social pressure combine to make it difficult for young girls to make healthy decisions regarding marriage.
Though it may appear that young girls want to get married, Ahmed said “often they are lured into marriage by their parents” who find the prospect of a wealthy son-in-law appealing. “The girls would not be able to make a good decision about their marriage partners” in that context, she added.
Ahmed observed that in most marriages between a young girl and an older man, the man has wealth, high social status, or both. She added that the girl is rarely consulted, and “parents are often to blame”.
In the event that an underage girl claims to have no parent or legal guardian, the state becomes responsible for her security. Ahmed pointed out that this mechanism does prevent girls from lying about their background, and allows for higher scrutiny.
“The court also must play an important role to ensure the rights to the underage girl”, she said.