The supreme court has introduced new rules requiring the family court to seek its approval before registering marriages involving minors.
In accordance with Islamic sharia, the Maldives’ family law allows children under the age of 18 who have reached puberty to get married with a special permission from the family court.
The Registrar of Marriages has the discretion to grant approval “upon having considered the person’s physical well-being, competence to maintain a livelihood, and reasons for contracting the marriage,” according to the Family Act.
The regulations under the law previously authorised the family court based in the capital to register underage marriages after consulting with the gender ministry.
The apex court amended the rules on Tuesday to require the lower court to seek its approval in writing. The family court must also submit an assessment report from the ministry of gender and family.
The family regulation was also changed to require the family court and island magistrate courts to seek the supreme court’s approval in cases where the judge grants consent instead of the bride’s guardian.
In Islamic sharia, judges can grant permission if the objection of the legal guardian is found to be unsound or illegitimate.
The regulations previously authorised the chief judge of the family court to approve requests from other judges or magistrates.
The chief justice will now grant or refuse permission in such cases after consulting with the supreme court bench.
In May last year, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women had expressed concern with “the high number of unregistered marriages in rural and remote areas, including child marriages”.
It recommended setting an age limit of 16 for exceptional cases of underage marriages.
The family court had rarely granted permission for minors under the age of 16.
The Maldives acceded to the UN convention on women’s rights in July 1993 with reservations to article 16, which deals with equality in marriage and family relations.
During its periodic review, the UN committee on CEDAW urged the Maldives to honour its commitment to withdraw its reservation to paragraph two of article 16, which states: “The betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage and to make the registration of marriages in an official registry compulsory.”
The committee also recommended a review of the reservation to paragraph one of article 16, “with a view to fully withdrawing it, taking into consideration practices of countries with similar religious backgrounds and legal systems which have successfully harmonised their domestic legislation with international human rights obligations”.
The human rights watchdog had meanwhile raised concerns over a growing tide of religious conservatism in its submission for the Maldives’ Universal Periodic Review in 2014.
The Human Rights Commission referred to “reports of unregistered marriages encouraged by some religious scholars claiming that registering marriages with the courts are un‐Islamic and unnecessary.”
The report also noted that child marriages were registered in some cases as “the Family Act allows marriage of minors under specific conditions.”
The family court had raised the issue of unregistered marriages in 2010 as well.
Religious extremists in the Maldives have both endorsed and performed such marriages, claiming that even private, out-of-court marriages should be treated as legal as long as the minimum shariah requirements for marriage are met.