Iran has experienced a dramatic growth in under-age marriages that has seen the number of girls being wed before the age of 10 double in the space of a year, officially-compiled figures have revealed.
The trend has prompted child protection experts to warn of a surge in mental illness, suicides, teenage runaways and girls turning to prostitution as the nuptials frequently end in divorce.
While both genders are affected, statistics from the state-run civil registration organisation show the phenomenon to be more prevalent among girls. Some families are said to be marrying off their daughters to older men to pay off debts.
An Iranian NGO, the Society For Protecting The Rights of The Child, said 43,459 girls aged under 15 had married in 2009, compared with 33,383 three years previously. In 2010, 716 girls younger than 10 had wed, up from 449 the previous year, according to the organisation.
Its spokesman, Farshid Yazdani, blamed deepening poverty for the development, which he said was more common in socially backward rural areas often afflicted with high levels of illiteracy and drug addiction.
“Financial poverty of the families leads to children’s marriages. However, cultural poverty and ignorance is also an element,” Mr Yazdani told the semi-official Mehr news agency.
He said increasing child marriages were accompanied by a correspondingly high teenage divorce rate. Some 15,000 females aged 15-19 divorced their husbands every year between 2007 and 2010.
The statistics will fuel criticism that Iran’s Islamic legal code allows children, especially girls, to be married at an inappropriately early age.
While Sharia law states that females can be married as young as nine, a 2002 ruling by the powerful Expediency Council laid down that girls below 13 and boys younger than 15 could only wed with their father’s consent and the permission of a court.
However, critics complain that the legal standards in many socially conservative areas for allowing younger marriages are lax while a fundamentalist MP, Mohammad Ali Asfenani, has said Iran has a religious obligation to legally recognise the weddings of girls as young as nine
“As some people may not comply with our current Islamic legal system, we must regard nine as being the appropriate age for a girl to have reached puberty and qualified to get married,” Mr Asfenani, chairman of the parliamentary legal and judiciary committee, told Khabar Online. “To do otherwise would be to contradict and challenge Islamic Sharia law.”