A draft law to establish the legal age of marriage in Lebanon at 18 will be presented to Cabinet next week, following a workshop on the prevention of child marriage held Thursday at Parliament. The announcement that MP Elie Keyrouz will present the draft law aiming to end child marriage was made at a workshop on the issue organized by the United Nations Development Program. Marriage in Lebanon is governed by religious rather than civil courts.

There is currently no law in the penal code that stipulates a minimum age of marriage. Instead, the age is variously set by the country’s confessional communities, with marriages requiring either a guardian’s or judiciary’s permission.

In practice, the age can drop as low as 15 for males and 9 for females, the UNDP says.

The draft legislation to be presented Monday was created by the Lebanese Democratic Women’s Gathering – RDFL, a secular NGO founded in 1976 that focuses on promoting equality between men and women. Article 1 of the draft stipulates that a “child” refers to any boy or girl under the age of 18, and therefore “the age of marriage in Lebanese territory [should be] 18.”

RDFL is also calling for amendments to existing articles. For instance, they hope to amend Article 485 to allow for stricter punishments for anyone found to be facilitating child marriages. The NGO suggests that “any person who has contracted, authorized, instigated, intervened, contributed [to] or participated in a child marriage contract without obtaining the final judicial authorization [be] punished by a fine of 10 times the official minimum wage and imprisonment from three months to two years.”

The number of child marriages has steadily increased across the Middle East in recent years, with many such marriages contracted between Syrian refugees.

“This type of marriage is an abuse against woman and children and it steals [the child’s] whole life, so we are dedicated to fight against it,” Fatima Fakhreddine, project manager of the UNDP parliamentary project, told The Daily Star. “There are lots of stories [about] Syrian refugees where fathers are marrying their young daughters to older men because of her dowry, and they see it as acceptable because it is religiously allowed. Even if she says ‘Yes’ to marriage, she is too young to understand what she’s doing.”

The UNDP sees the implementation of a law regulating the marriage age as a potential solution to other problems that may at first glance seem unrelated. “The rise in child marriages has led to an increase in human trafficking ... which has been getting worse with the Syrian displacement,” Fakhreddine said.

“Rich men marry a young girl, offering money and to look after the daughter, but then he divorces her a month or two later. It’s almost like legal prostitution. We want MPs to understand that we’re a democratic country and that marriage should be under civil law ... if you raise the age limit, a lot of other problems will get better too.”

Philippe Lazzarini, deputy UN special coordinator for Lebanon, gave a speech Thursday that touched on the causes of child marriage and their effects on those involved, as well as the threat such marriages pose to communities as a whole.

“The highest percentage of women currently married or in union between the age of 15 and 19 can be found among Syrian refugees, at 27 percent, followed by ... 4 percent for both Lebanese women and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon,” Lazzarini said, citing a 2016 UNICEF survey.

These early marriages can often lead to maternal fatality and crime, Lazzarini said. He mentioned dangerously early pregnancies and social isolation as two potential results, while “the worst cases lead to human trafficking and organized crime, sexual abuse and marital rape.”

Layla Awada, a lawyer for women’s rights NGO KAFA, reminded attendees at Thursday’s workshop that child marriage left children at their guardians’ mercy.

“Marriage is a contract – does a child have the right to enter this contract? No, their guardian signs the contract,” Awada said. “These children cannot get out without their guardians’ consent until they are 18.”

“Two weeks ago, someone told us that their 13-year-old daughter had been kidnapped and [the perpetrator] had her locked away in his home, refusing to let her out,” Awada said. “After investigating, we learned that her parents had thrown a wedding for her [to this man] ... this was her second marriage.”

Fakhreddine points out that combatting the issue of child marriage will play a significant role in achieving the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals, the fifth of which stipulates the need to eliminate child marriage as a key step toward promoting gender equality.