Lawmakers in Spain are putting the final touches to legislation to raise the minimum age for marriage from 14 to 16, after children’s advocates expressed concerns that the current law leaves children vulnerable to forced marriages and exploitation.
The new legislation, approved by a parliamentary justice commission on Tuesday, will now go to the senate where it is expected to be debated next week.
While the marrying age in Spain is 18, currently Spanish law allows for two exceptions: a 16-year-old wanting to marry can do so with parental permission, while 14-year-olds are allowed to marry with permission from a judge.
Under the new legislation, 14- and 15-year-olds will no longer be able to marry, while 16-year-olds will now require permission from a judge or parental consent to marry.
The reforms come after years of lobbying by children’s rights groups, said Gabriel González-Bueno of Unicef in Spain. “There’s a risk that these young children are being forced into marriages or being married off as a consequence of an agreement in which they had little say,” he said.
Raising the marrying age is an attempt to ensure that children have a say in the decisions that affect their lives, their education and their health, González-Bueno said. “These marriages, particularly in the case of young girls, often lead to an interruption of their studies,” he said.
In Spain, where the average age of newlyweds is 37.2 years for men and 34.1 for women, the number of adolescents getting married is relatively small, said González-Bueno.
In 2013, there was just one marriage involving a 14-year-old girl and another involving a 15-year-old girl. The numbers increased for 16-year-olds, he said, with four boys and 31 girls married in 2013. “In general, we see a gender imbalance in these marriages, with the girls more likely to be younger than the boys,” González-Bueno said.
The government announced its intention to change the laws more than two years ago, and since then, he said, the numbers have climbed. In the first six months of 2014, four girls and four boys were married at the age of 14, while nine girls and eight boys were married at 15. “We don’t know exactly what caused the increase, but it might have been in anticipation of the reforms being passed,” he added.
Detailed information on exactly who is marrying at this young age is not available, said Ana Sastre of Save the Children in Spain. “Some have pointed to certain religious groups or Gypsy communities in Spain but these groups aren’t likely to register these marriages with the state,” she said. “I’m not sure our assumptions match what’s actually happening on the ground.”
The reforms are an important step forward as they could help dissuade some, Sastre said. “But they have to be accompanied by other measures, such as educational outreach programmes to highlight the benefits of making these decisions later in life.” These types of programmes should be put in place even once the minimum age is raised to 16 years, she said. “It’s still an early age to be marrying.”
The reforms to the minimum age for marrying come as lawmakers push forward with legislation to raise the age of sexual consent in Spain, which at 13 years ranks among the lowest in Europe. Children’s advocates have long pushed for changes, arguing that the legislation leaves minors vulnerable to sexual exploitation by adults. The new legislation, expected to come into effect in July, would raise the age to 16.
Reforms to the age of sexual consent became a national debate in 2012, after the death of a 13-year-old girl at the hand of her 39-year-old lover in the small village of El Salobral near Albacete. The girl’s parents had alerted the authorities to the relationship, but police said they couldn not intervene as the relationship was legal and consensual.
Source Credits: Ashifa Kassam in The Guardian from Madrid