08/22/2019, 16.03
SRI LANKA
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Sri Lankan activists call for changes to Islamic marriage law to end discrimination against women

by Melani Manel Perera

According to advocacy groups, Muslim women are treated as second-class citizens. The existing law dates back to 1951. For the past 30 years, attempts have been made to change the law to include a minimum age. Child brides are commonplace. Rape against married teens is not punished.

Colombo (AsiaNews) – Hundreds of activists and civil society groups are calling for changes to Sri Lanka’s law on Islamic marriage and divorce, which discriminates against women and treats them as second-class citizens.

A total of 197 activists and artists as well as 30 associations signed a joint declaration asking the government to overhaul, after 30 years of waiting, the law governing Islamic marriage.

In Sri Lanka, marriage and divorce for Muslims are regulated by separate legislation, namely the 1951 Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA), which set up Quazi courts to settle marriage disputes.

Ever since its adoption, women have complained that the law discriminates against them. For activists, failure to address the problem places women in a vulnerable position and undercuts their right to equality under the country’s constitution.

Specifically, adult women resent being treated as minors. In the case of marriage, they object to the need of getting the permission of a "guardian".

What is more, unlike non-Muslim Sri Lankan women whose age of marriage is 18, the MMDA allows child marriages by not specifying a minimum age.

Penalties for raping girls aged 12 to 16 are not applicable in the case of married Muslim girls. Other forms of discrimination concern divorce, polygamy and spousal support.

Activists and associations have been trying for years to get comprehensive reform, notes Lawyer Ermiza Tegal. One of the most disputed points is the lack of women judges ruling on issues concerning women, and women lawyers representing women.

The law makes in effect Muslim women “second-class citizens”. And the lack of a minimum age has led to hundreds of cases of girls married off before they reach 18. Between 2011 and 2016, 870 girls aged 13 to 18 were married in the Ampara District alone.

In the declaration, advocacy groups urgently call on the Sri Lanka Government to take action to address the repeated its failure to protect Muslim women and children.

Whilst acknowledging differing views within the Muslim community, including among Islamic clerics and scholars, the various groups remind the authorities that they have the responsibility of protecting all citizens equally.

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