A new bill tabled in Somalia last month would allow children to marry once they have reached puberty which could leave children as young as 10 years old at risk of being forced into marriage.
The new Sexual Intercourse Related Crimes Bill has sparked outrage amongst members of parliament in the country as it seeks to replace a 2018 bill aimed at preventing child marriage and protecting women and girls from sexual offenses.
Crucially, the new bill allows a child to marry provided the family gives its consent – but consent from the child is not considered necessary. This legal loophole will actively disempower children and leave them vulnerable to coercion from their parents and family members to enter into marriages against their will.
Fardowsa Salat Mohamed is just one of these children. She was 15 years old when her father accepted a marriage proposal on her behalf and she was given no choice but to marry.
The Guardian reports:
“That was not a choice for me, I was basically forced,” she says. “No girl would ever choose to be cursed by her parents so I had to accept the marriage,”
Mohamed, who is from the town of Baidoa in south-central Somalia, was at school, dreaming of becoming a doctor. She had to drop everything and become a wife. Three years later, Mohamed was divorced with two children. She is now back living at her parents’ house.
According to the latest government figures, 34% of Somali girls are married before they reach 18, and 16% of them before their 15th birthday.
While children are married off for different reasons, such as the economic benefit of a dowry, and an increase in child marriage cases has been reported during the coronavirus pandemic, early marriage is rooted in Somali culture. An old Somali saying goes: “Gabadh ama god hakaaga jirto ama gunti rag,” which loosely translates as “a girl should either be married or in a grave”.
It took Mohamed five months to convince her parents to allow her to get divorced. Her former husband was addicted to chewing khat, the stimulant leaf common in east Africa.
“He would spend the little money he gets on khat instead of buying milk for our hungry children,” she says. “He took advantage of the support he had from my family. But I was relentless and kept on demanding until I was finally relieved.”
Sahra Omar Ma’alin, member of the Somali parliament’s human rights committee, said “It is completely unacceptable. We have to protect the rights of our children. We have asked the deputy speaker to bring back the original bill, which we had been working on for so many years. It was such a comprehensive document that provides women the dignity and protection they deserve.”
Somalia ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 2015 and the government committed in 2014 to ending child marriage by the end of this year.
Yet the new bill goes directly against these international commitments and has been called a “shocking development” by the chief of child protection at Unicef Somalia, Brendan Ross.
Freedom United urges the Somali parliament to prevent this new bill from being passed into law and calls on Somalia, and all countries, to end forced child marriage.