Protecting Childhood: Motion on the Marriage Age

Wednesday, 25th June 2014

“That Seanad Éireann:

– notes the need to ensure adequate protection of children and of children’s rights in our laws, and in particular to ensure that children are not coerced or forced into ‘arranged’ marriages;
– notes that sections 31 and 33 of the Family Law Act 1995 allow exemptions from the normal rule that parties to a legal marriage must be over 18; and that the possibility of seeking this exemption by way of court order was retained in section 2(2) of the Civil Registration Act 2004;
– notes further that this exemption was criticised by the High Court in a judgment in June 2013 in a case concerning an ‘arranged’ marriage; and
– proposes that the Government would consider whether to remove or amend the statutory provision allowing minors to marry on the basis of a court exemption.”

Senator Jillian van Turnhout:

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I would like to thank Senator Bacik, who like me has worked on this issue, for initiating the motion before us. I am very happy to second the motion and thank her for her co-operation.

I raised this issue back in May during the Seanad debate on the abducted schoolgirls in Nigeria that Boko Haram had threatened to sell into forced marriage. Like many people, I felt helpless looking on at the situation and it made me wonder if there was anything we could do. For me, this is one area that we can do something about. We can send the clear message that the age for marriage is 18. That is something that we must take responsibility for doing. During the debate I made the worrying correlation between Nigeria and Ireland because, in certain court ordered special circumstances, exemptions to the ordinary legal age for marriage of 18 years can be made. That means Ireland does not currently prohibit all child marriages.

It is important to note that Ireland is bound by a number of international human rights laws and standards, the provisions of which are profoundly incompatible with child marriage, for example, the International Bill of Human Rights, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, CEDAW, the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the slave trade, and institutions and practices similar to slavery.

In September 2013, Ireland, with its fellow EU member states, supported the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution, Strengthening Efforts to Prevent and Eliminate Child, Early and Forced Marriage: challenges, achievements, best practice, and implementation gaps. The European Union as a negotiating block at the international fora condemns the prevalence of child marriages yet makes provision for it in a number of its own jurisdictions, for example, in Germany and Italy. In Germany, if one of the parties to be wed is at least 16 years old, but not yet 18 years old, the German age of emancipation, that party needs to seek approval from the family court in order to be wed. Consent of the concerned party’s parents is not sufficient. In Italy, a sworn statement of consent to the marriage is required by the parents or legal guardian if the child is under the age of 18.

Exploitation of young girls through violence and abuse, including forced and arranged marriages, is a global problem. According to Girls not Brides, every year, approximately 14 million girls are married before they turn 18 across countries, cultures and religions. They are robbed of their childhood and denied their rights to health, education and security. According to UNFPA, by 2030, the number of child brides marrying each year will have grown from 14.2 million in 2010 to 15.1 million, a 14% rise if the current trend continue.

In March 2014, the Iraqi Justice Minister tabled a Bill to allow girls as young as nine years old to marry. While reports have indicated that it is unlikely that the law will pass, it represents a worrying trend toward religious tendencies usurping girls’ human rights. In response to the Bill, prominent Iraqi human rights activist Hana Adwar said: “The law represents a crime against humanity and childhood. Married underage girls are subjected to physical and psychological suffering.” This contention is known to be true. The more than 60 million girls married under the age of 18 worldwide have a higher risk of death and injury during childbirth, fewer marketable skills, lower lifetime income, a higher rate of HIV, exposure to domestic violence, and illness for themselves and their families than their unwed peers.

It is inappropriate and, frankly, contradictory that we in Ireland speak out against child marriage in countries such as India, Nigeria, Malawi, Iraq, Nepal, Ethiopia and Bangladesh while our Statute Book still allows for exemptions to the normal marriage age, and fails to specify a minimum age for such exemptions. As outlined by Senator Ivana Bacik in 2012, some 28 marriages were registered under the exemption. As stated by the Senator, the exemption threshold is very broad and it uses standard language giving the court wide discretion. This means that decisions pertaining to allowing children to marry are made behind closed doors, often subject to the in camera rule since the parties to the application are children. Yet, from the moment they are married, they become adults and are outside all the child protection laws. We never hear about those decisions and those vulnerable children. In this regard, the Family Law Reporting Project has come across many of these cases, and may be able to shine a light on the prevalence and general circumstances in which they occur.

There is no written judgment in the High Court case referenced in this motion. The case concerns the annulment of a 16 year old girl’s marriage to a 29 year old man on the basis of the girl’s lack of capacity to give true consent. How can a 16 year old girl give consent to a marriage to a 29 year old man? I am not speaking of a case in Iraq but in Ireland. This happened in Ireland. However, Mr. Justice MacMenamin felt the case raised concerns of such a magnitude that it warranted his making a general comment about the danger of the legal loophole to children. We are faced with a choice. As the Legislature, we must provide guidance for the courts to implement the statutory provisions as intended or, and this would be my preference, we can lead by example and remove or amend the statutory provision currently allowing minors to marry. I believe Ireland should send a clear signal to children here that we protect childhood and that the age for marriage is 18 years. We have had excellent debates here on protecting childhood. We are talking about consent, the age for which should be set at 18 years. That would mean that Ireland, as part of the European Union as a negotiating block, is not saying that it can understand cultural differences and our courts can adjudicate, but we do not trust the courts in other countries. We need to send out a message that we are setting the age at 18 years without exemption.

Link to full debate here.

The Lancet

In July 2021, Jillian co-authored an article in the world-renowned medical journal “The Lancet”