By Heba Kanso
BEIRUT, Feb 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A Jordanian lawmaker praised for her role in abolishing a law that let rapists off the hook if they married their victims has set tackling child marriage as her next challenge.
Nearly 10,500 girls in Jordan were married before reaching their 18th birthdays in 2017, according to the most up to date figures from the U.N. children's agency UNICEF.
Girls in Jordan can be married from age 15 with a judge's approval, even though the legal marriageable age is 18. Lawmaker Wafa Bani Mustafa said that even raising it to 16 would reduce the numbers.
"This is not an exception. This is something that is happening every day, and too many young girls are getting married," the 39-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation during a recent visit to Beirut.
"I am very optimistic child marriage will decrease if we change the age to 16. It doesn't matter if they are Jordanian or Syrian - we need to protect all girls."
A significant proportion are believed to be Syrian girls after an influx of refugees from Jordan's war-ravaged neighbour, with families marrying off daughters young to give them financial security and protection from sexual violence.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled their homeland since the war started in 2011 and there are now more than 670,000 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan according to the United Nations.
"If you are not old enough to vote or drive a car - how can you open a house and build a family," said Bani Mustafa, one of only 20 women in Jordan's 130-seat House of Representatives.
"We need to first change the culture by raising the age of exceptions to 16 - then slowly maybe this will be the first step to making it to 18 with no exceptions."
In 2017 Jordan's parliament voted to abolish a law that allowed rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims after a years-long campaign led by Bani Mustafa.
Now she is seeking a change to a section of the law governing inheritance, arguing that it disadvantages women.
As things stand, the children of a father who dies before his own parents will inherit the assets he would have received had he survived them, while the children of a mother who dies before her parents will not.
"If we push changing women's rights through law it will change the culture of the society to accept women's rights. The law helps change our society's mentality," she said.
Globally, 12 million girls marry before age 18 every year, according to Girls Not Brides, a coalition working to end child marriage.
In Jordan, Bani Mustafa said there were legal provisions to protect child brides - including a maximum 15-year age gap and the requirement that they be allowed to continue their education - but they were not being adhered to.
"I will keep fighting for Jordanian women - nothing will slow me down. We deserve better lives and equal rights to men. It is not easy, but we have to keep fighting," she said.
"I think women's rights are slowly changing in Jordan." (Reporting by Heba Kanso @hebakanso; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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