Images shared on social media platforms have turned new attention to the issue of underage marriage in Iran, where critics say the government too often turns a blind eye to the practice.
The photos in question are of a six-year-old boy and a seven-year-old girl in a medical clinic in the district of Kazerun in southern Iran. The assumption is that they're being tested ahead of their possible marriage, presumably as planned by their families.
The head of the Kazerun health care authority, Bandar Baramaki, confirmed that the tests were because the families were concerned about prior cases of thalassemia (a blood disorder) in both families. Nevertheless, he downplays the child marriage angle.
"We don't know whether later on they will marry or not, and even if they wanted to they could not, because two people with thalassemia cannot marry," he says.
Likewise, the local judiciary responded by saying that the children were Afghans and that the families in question, "with regard for their customs," were indeed planning to have the children marry, but only after they reach "legal" age, namely 13 for girls and 15 for boys.
The Kazerun Public and Revolutionary Court warned it would act against anyone "publishing fake news and subjects."
But critics say that in this case, public officials are the ones who are twisting the information as a way to cover up the reality of underage marriages, which are on the rise with poorer families being offered money for their children.
The laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran require marriage parties to register with a notary and provide valid identity papers (with photos) proving their age. It appears, however, that the law is not being respected or enforced.
Social platform users have used #No2IR (short for "no to the Islamic Republic") to denounce the regime's position on underage marriage — both legal (by allowing girls as young as 13 to marry) and de facto (by turning a blind eye to cases involving even younger children) — as simply horrendous.
She says underage marriage figures "are not that high."
According to figures from the Iran Statistics Center, in the three-month period from March 20, 2020, more than 7,000 girls aged 10 to 14 years were married, with one girl aged less than 10 also registered as married. The same body found that the mothers of 346 children born in that period were not yet 15 years old, with mothers aged 15 to 19 giving birth to some 16,000 babies. Additionally, it counted 131 divorces involving a wife aged less than 14 years, and 2,650 divorcées aged 15 to 19 years.
The country's vice-president for women and family affairs, Ma'sumeh Ebtekar, says underage marriage figures "are not that high" and that Iran has a "strong" reactive system to block such situations.
For years now, a bill to raise the legal marriage age to 18 has been circulating between the presidency, parliament and the Guardian Council. The latter body ensures legislation does not contravene the constitution or religious laws.
In late Feb. 2021, the district of Namin in the province of Ardabil registered 120 underage marriages in one notary alone. The Namin chief prosecutor, Azim Akbari, says those were "just some of the cases of underage marriage that were identified" — presumably in the province — though he adds that as time passed, it was difficult to find out when exactly couples had married.
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