Twelve minors were married in Malta over the past decade because of a legal loophole that allows 16- and 17-year-olds to marry with parental consent, according to figures obtained from the National Statistics Office.
Campaigners say the marriage law does not go far enough in protecting young people from being coerced into marriage and want the age limit raised.
A person must be 18 to get married but a 16- or 17-year-old may contract marriage if their parents consent or if authorised to do so by the courts.
In 2019, the United Nations’ Committee for the Rights of the Child recommended that Malta’s marriage law should be amended to ban under-18s from getting married.
Children’s Commissioner Antoinette Vassallo has also been advocating that the legal marriage age be raised to 18 “specifically to prevent children from being promised for arranged marriages by their parents”.
The details of the 12 teenage spouses are unknown. The NSO cited “confidentiality issues” with providing details such as gender and nationality for such a low overall total.
All the figures show is that there were three cases in 2012, one in 2013 and another in 2014, three in 2015, one in 2019 and three in 2020.
There were none last year.
Times of Malta has asked the government if there are plans to raise the age limit but has received no reply.
Malta is not alone in this law. In all EU member states, the minimum age required for marriage is set at 18.
Most countries’ national legislation provides for the possibility to marry before reaching 18 with the consent of parents or a judicial body. Only Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden ban marriage below the age of 18, as recommended by the UN committee, according to the EU Union for Fundamental Rights.
Fears of larger numbers
Child marriage campaigners say the statistics are only the tip of the iceberg, with most coerced marriages going undocumented.
Last month, Women’s Rights Foundation founder Lara Dimitrijevic said teachers had told the foundation that some “foreign” girls “even as young as 12 are disappearing from their classrooms and then turning up weeks later saying that they are married to much older men or not ever showing up at all”.
Last month, several people who work in the social care and education sector said they knew of cases of teenagers not turning up at school and their friends telling the teacher that they were on their honeymoon.
The police said they received two reports of alleged underage child marriages in 2020. One resulted in an attempted forced marriage of a minor, the other was investigated but allegations of a forced marriage did not result. However, court action was initiated in connection with defilement. Both cases are still pending.