Activists Call for Clear Minimum Marriage Age in Draft Child Rights Law

By San Yamin Aung 4 December 2018

YANGON—Women’s rights advocates have raised concerns over the absence of a clearly defined minimum age of marriage in the proposed Child Rights Law currently before Parliament.

The draft bill submitted by the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement states that the minimum age at which boys and girls can marry shall be defined by both existing laws and customary laws. (Customary law refers to the traditional laws observed by the country’s various religions and ethnicities.) A provision of the draft adds that in order for the marriage to be legally registered, those being married must be at least 18 years of age.

The Lower House’s Bill Committee last week suggested removing the second part regarding the minimum age being 18.

Lower House lawmaker U Kyaw Soe Linn, who is also a secretary of the Bill Committee, said in Parliament that stating a marriageable age in the Child Rights Law would create inconsistencies with the country’s various customary laws. He cited the Myanmar Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Law, the Christian Marriage Act and other ethnic groups’ traditions relating to marriage, which prescribe different age minimums for marriage.

The Lower House voted in favor of the committee’s suggestion on Nov. 28.

Lawyer and Legal Clinic Myanmar director Ma Hla Hla Yee voiced concern that the omission of a clearly stated minimum legal age for marriage from the proposed Child Rights Law would encourage child marriage.

“It is the same as allowing boys and girls to marry before they are ready under the Child Rights Law,” the lawyer said.

She said that as the proposed Child Rights Law is a special law on children, it will have an influence on the interpretation of other laws. For that reason, the omission of a stated marriageable age could allow some people who commit offenses against children to escape prosecution under the Penal Code’s Article 375, she said.

Article 375 defines the minimum age at which an individual can legally consent to sex with an adult as 16. Whether consensual or not, any adult who engages in sex with a minor below this age is guilt of rape under the law.

Prominent women’s rights advocate Ma May Sabe Phyu, who is also a director of the Gender Equality Network, said removing the legal age for marriage and legally permitting children to marry under different customs and traditions would be in violation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), an international treaty that Myanmar signed in 1997.

As a signatory to the CEDAW, the government is obliged to enact laws that protect women and girls from being subject to harmful traditions and practices, Ma May Sabe Phyu said. The proposed Child Rights Law would do the exact opposite, she added.

Drafted by the ministry, the proposed Child Rights Law is a revision of the outdated 1993 Child Law. It would extend childhood status to the age of 18 in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which the country signed in 1991, and provide improved protections for child rights and care.

“[Opponents of a defined age of marriage] would argue that we are seizing on one single issue in an otherwise perfect law. But that single issue is too important to ignore,” Ma May Sabe Phyu said.

Legislation passed under a democratic government should comply with international conventions ratified by the country, she said.

During the Parliament session on Nov. 28, Lower House lawmaker Ma Aye Mya Mya Myo proposed a motion objecting to any omission of a minimum legal age for marriage in the legislation.

She pointed to the joint general recommendation made by the CEDAW and UN CRC committees in 2014. The committees called on the government to prevent and eliminate harmful practices frequently justified by invoking social or religious customs and values often embedded in patriarchal cultures and traditions.

“I would remind [lawmakers] that this is a special law for child rights,” Ma Aye Mya Mya Myo said.

“Child marriage has many effects on girls’ health, including underage pregnancy and maternal mortality,” she added.

Her motion was defeated, however. A total of 320 lawmakers in the male-dominated Parliament rejected it, versus 33 lawmakers who supported it.

The bill will be submitted to the Upper House for further discussion.

Lawyer Ma Hla Hla Yee called for the establishment of a minimum legal age for marriage in the Child Rights Law to prevent early and forced marriage being justified as protected traditional customs.

“It is really important that a minimum legal age for marriage be restored when the legislation is debated in the Upper House,” she said.