Somalia’s parliament is facing criticism Wednesday as it is weighing a controversial bill that would allow child marriage once a girl’s sexual organs mature, and forced marriage as long as a family gives their consent.
The measures are being put forward as more than 45% of young women in Somalia were married or “in union” before age 18, according to a United Nations analysis in 2014-15.
“[It] would represent a major setback in the fight against sexual violence in Somalia and across the globe” and should be withdrawn immediately, Pramila Patten, the U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict, said in a statement Tuesday.
Somalia's presidency and health ministry had no immediate comment Wednesday. It was not clear when the bill would be put up for a vote.
"We want to make sure it goes in line with Islamic law and traditions,” the deputy parliament speaker, Abdweli Mudey, said after the new bill emerged.
Activists have spent years trying to give more protections to women in Somalia, which the Associated Press says is one of the world’s most conservative countries.
The contentious new bill also comes as women’s rights groups openly worry that the coronavirus pandemic and related travel restrictions in Somalia have worsened violence against women and female genital mutilation. Nearly all Somali women and girls have been subjected to that practice, according to the Associated Press.
Some 68% of more than 300 service providers across the country have reported an increase in gender-based violence, including rape since the pandemic began, the U.N. Population Fund said in a report last month.
In 2013, Somalia had agreed with the U.N. to improve its sexual violence laws, and after five years of work, a sexual offenses bill was approved by the Council of Ministers and sent to parliament.
But last year the speaker of the House of the People sent the bill back “in a process that may have deviated from established law” asking for “substantive amendments,” Patten said.
Now the new bill “risks legitimizing child marriage, among other alarming practices, and must be prevented from passing into law,” U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said this week, warning that its passage would “send a worrying signal to other states in the region.”
Meanwhile, thousands of people in Somalia are circulating a petition against the bill, including Ilwad Elman with the Mogadishu-based Elman Peace and Human Rights Center.
As Somalia prepared to mark International Youth Day on Wednesday, Elman tweeted this week: “I don’t wanna see any Somali officials participating online to celebrate... when you’re trying to steal their childhood away from them RIGHT NOW with the intercourse bill legalizing child marriage.”
The U.N. mission to Somalia in a separate statement has called the new bill “deeply flawed” and urged parliament to re-introduce the original one. That original bill “will be vital in preventing and criminalizing all sexual offenses,” the Somalia representative for the U.N. Population Fund, Anders Thomsen, said.
“Big moment for [members of parliament] to decide Somalia’s future values,” the British ambassador to Somalia, Ben Fender, has tweeted.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.