May 4, 2016

A MINIMUM AGE OF MARRIAGE FOR ALL CITIZENS IN SRI LANKA by Githma Chandrasekera – University of Colombo, Sri Lanka

The contradictory topic of establishing a unified minimum age of marriage has surfaced again in Sri Lanka, following the public sittings held in all 25 Districts of Sri Lanka by the Public Representations Committee (PRC) on Constitutional Reforms.

According to a statement issued by the Women Action Network in Sri Lanka[1], many Muslim women and victims of the injustice faced under the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) have gone before the PRC on constitutional reforms in district level hearings in Puttalam, the North and the East and have made oral and written submissions demanding immediate reform of the MMDA or to give Muslims the option to marry under Sri Lankan General Marriage Ordinance.

Concurrently, Member of Parliament Hirunika Premachandra brought up the issue during a workshop with parliamentarians on the formation of Constitution where she raised concerns about the legal issues the MMDA has brought forward.[2]

Although close to half of child marriages takes place in South Asia, child marriages account for 2% in Sri Lanka[3] . Bulk of this 2% happen owing to weak laws specifically the MMDA, which does not designate a minimum age for marriage.

While the minimum age of marriage for both male and female is 18 years in terms of General Marriages Ordinance and Kandyan Law, the Muslim Law of Sri Lanka does not specify any minimum age of marriage. The MMDA has a provision concerning marriage of girls who have not attained the age of twelve not to be registered without Quazi’s permission (Section 23). This provision, however, contradicts with the section 363 of the Penal Code of Sri Lanka, which states that sexual intercourse with a girl below the age of 16 (with or without her consent) amounts to statutory rape.

Regardless, the issue of establishing a minimum age of marriage should not be considered as an issue of the Muslim community alone. However, this has been the approach observed by the State so far.

In 2010, during the Forty-fifth session of the United Nations’ Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights[4] addressed this reluctance on the part of Sri Lankan autorities with serious concern that “the State party relies on the communities themselves to amend their personal status laws and that the Women’s Bill does not protect women and girls from all communities from early and forced marriage.”

Moreover, in 2011, Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in its Forty-eighth session[5]voiced its concern on the same matter, emphasizing the need to amend the MMDA due to the presence of discriminatory elements against women included in the Act.

As mentioned before, the responsibility for establishing a minimum age of marriage should not be given to the communities of concern alone. This is because the Constitution of Sri Lanka sets out rights to gender equality and adhere to a number of human rights instruments and international commitments, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Child Rights Convention (CRC) and Convention for Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Such rights should apply to all citizens of the country irrespective of their race, religion or region. Accordingly, women of minority communities should not be left out of the protection of their rights. It is a responsibility of the State to ensure that every individual’s rights are protected.

In this light the issue of age for marriage is considered as one of the most prominent and serious child rights concern. The issue is one of human rights and child rights. The coming forward of the Muslim women with their proposals to the PRC of Constitutional Reforms is significant since this discrimination needs to be questioned and brought to the attention of the civil society.

Early marriages deny the young an opportunity to grow and empower themselves. Young girls are married off before they are mentally, physically and psychologically prepared for the responsibilities that a marriage brings. These young girls are not capable of taking care of themselves let alone the burden of marital responsibilities. Early marriages, thus, have serious negative consequences of these children’s right to education, health, protection and development.

Although no concrete action plan has been devised till now to address the issue of minimum age of marriage, the State has a grave responsibility since it has ratified to most of the international human rights conventions and various international bodies’ have recommended (as such mentioned above) that the State take immediate action to repeal all statutory laws that discriminate against women and to take measures to amend the MMDA and to put it in conformity with its national legislation with the view to outlaw early marriage. Furthermore, with the holding of public sittings throughout the country as a part of the Constitutional Reforms, the public has gained an opportunity to provide proposals demanding policies to establish a unified minimum age for marriage. Establishing a unified minimum age of marriage will ensure the protection of the human rights and children’s right without discriminating against any community.


[2] Hirunika Premachandra during a workshop with parliamentarians on the formation of Constitution, held on 29th March 2016 raised concerns that the MMDA allows for Muslim girls and boys below the age of 18 to be married and her consternation about the practical and potential problems that would be faced by the minority Muslim women and children in the country with regard to lack of minimum age of marriage.


[4] The report contains the concluding observations of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Forty-fifth session held in Geneva, 1-19 November 2010