The Western Cape government is investigating the marriage of a city girl who was made pregnant at 13 by a middle-aged man, and married to him by Muslim rites three months after her 14th birthday.

Their daughter was born three months later.

The girl, who may not be identified because of her age, married the man in November 2009. Now 15, she has recently gone back to school, which brought the situation to the authorities’ attention.

The girl’s parents said she had made a mistake when she was very young, and was now putting it right. They were delighted she had chosen to go back to school.

“We want our daughter to have a good life and by going to school she can achieve that.”

But the Women’s Legal Centre is concerned that the draft Bill recognising Muslim marriages does not expressly state a minimum age for marriage.

Director Jennifer Williams says it is a criminal offence to have consensual sex with a child between 12 and 16.

And according to the Children’s Act, no child under 18 may be married without special permission, including in some cases from the Minister of Home Affairs. The Recognition of Customary Marriages Act also requires that the prospective spouses be 18, but the Muslim Marriages Bill does not.

“The Children’s Act specifically seeks to prevent marriages of minors, and the best interests of the child are paramount in terms of the constitution. Where there are circumstances that it is in the child’s interest to be in the marriage, this should be dealt with across the board and not according to the type of marriage. At the moment the provisions differ in relation to civil marriages and customary marriages and, of course, there are no provisions relating to religious marriages.”

The parents of the 15-year-old girl were both surprised and angry when Weekend Argus approached them this week. “It’s not something one plans for, it’s not that you want your child to get married so young, but the religion is clear: when a child messes up, marriage is the only way to make things right.”

The girl’s mother said her daughter was very mature for her age. “Many people do not believe that she is only 15. Looking at her you will never say. My daughter and her husband live with us and we make sure that we help and guide where we can. Ultimately, she is happy and it’s what she wanted. Our child had to grow up quickly but she knew what she wanted, and that’s important.”

She said her son-in-law provided well for both his wife and their one-year-old girl.

When asked about her marriage, the girl merely smiled and said: “I love being married, it is very nice.”

Paddy Attwell, of the Western Cape Education Department, confirmed that a girl married according to Muslim rites was a pupil at a Delft school.

“The department’s main concern is the best interests of the learner. We will not discriminate against her because she is married.”

The matter had been referred to the provincial Department of Social Development.

Western Cape Social Development MEC Patricia de Lille said she instructed inspectors to visit the school and investigate the case. “Our social workers met the family yesterday and we are awaiting a full report.”

The Muslim Judicial Council’s Head of Social Development, Moulana Abdul Sattaag Carr, said it was not inevitable that if a young couple had a baby they should marry.

“There are various aspects that we have to look at. In some cases marriage might be a good option but in others, where the couple does not share a loving relationship or it is not economically viable, they should not get married.”

He said, according to Islam any girl beyond puberty could marry.

Williams, of the Women’s Legal Centre, said in terms of the Marriage Act anyone under 18 wanting to marry needed the consent of both parents. In addition, boys under 18 and girls under 16 required the permission of the Minister of Home Affairs to marry. The Recognition of Customary Marriages Act also requires that prospective spouses be 18. – Weekend Argus

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