The United Nations has urged all of its member states to take action to prevent child, early and forced marriage.
The Third Committee of the UN General Assembly stated in November that every member state must do its utmost to ensure that no one is forced to marry against their will and that marriages are based solely on mutual consent.
Tuomas Kurttila, the Ombudsman for Children in Finland, has demanded that the Ministry of Justice begin preparatory work to prohibit under-age people from marrying. Finland, he believes, must take action despite the fact the resolution agreed upon by all 193 member states of the UN is, in itself, a non-binding instrument.
The demands of Kurttila have been rejected by Anna-Maja Henriksson (SFP), the Minister of Justice.
The Marriage Act of Finland, which dates back to 1929, allows under-age marriages based on mutual consent if a dispensation to marry has been obtained from the Ministry of Justice.
Many Finns also remember a time when people were considered under-age until the age of 21 and when girls were allowed to marry with parental consent at the age of 17 and boys at the age of 18. At the time, people under the marriage age required a presidential dispensation to marry.
The legislation has since been revised to oblige all under 18-year-old people to personally apply for a dispensation to marry from the Ministry of Justice.
“However, the problem is that signatures on a written application are no guarantee of the mutual consent of the parties,” points out Kurttila. “It's not difficult to imagine a pregnant 16-year-old girl who is susceptible to pressure from her parents, for example.”
Inka Hetemäki, an expert in children's rights at UNICEF Finland, similarly hopes that the legislation would finally be revised. According to her, authorities should at least be required to interview under-age applicants.
“Arranged marriage and even human trafficking are possible in the current environment, although I'm not claiming that they exist,” she says.
Kurttila and Hetemäki both argue that child marriage should be prohibited due to the inconsistency arising from the fact that people are prohibited from having sex with under 16-year-olds but can marry them – at worst against their will.
The current legislation prescribes no minimum age for marriage. Dispensations to marry have been granted even to 14—15-year-old applicants, albeit very rarely in recent years. Between 2013 and 2014, for example, the majority of under-age people who were granted a dispensation to marry were 17 years old and nearing their 18th birthday, statistics compiled by the Ministry of Justice show.
Today, a dispensation to marry is typically granted to an under-age girl on grounds of religious beliefs. The second most common reason cited in the applications is pregnancy.
Currently, some 30—40 marriages in which one or both of the parties are under-age are registered in Finland every year. The number has declined notably: in the early 1990s, more than 100 such marriages were registered annually in the country. Today, roughly one-third of the applicants are foreign nationals.
The Ombudsman for Children estimates that the objective of the new legislation should be to outright prohibit people under the age of 18 from marrying. If an under-age applicant is pregnant, however, authorities should according to Kurttila be provided the means to take into consideration the interests of the unborn child.
“It would then become a question of protecting the interests of two children, often the mother and the unborn child,” he says.
Kurttila also emphasises that the experiences and co-operation of experts in various different fields are required for the preparatory work.
It is of utmost importance to oblige authorities to interview under-age applicants personally, both Kurttila and Hetemäki reiterate.
The resolution issued by the UN concerns primarily developing countries, where one in three girls are forced to marry before their 18th birthday. Kurttila points out, however, that it is difficult for Finns to demand that a country implement marriage laws that are stricter than its own.
CORRECTION: The resolution on child, early and forced marriage was passed by the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly, not the UN Human Rights Committee as initially stated in the article.
Kristiina Markkanen – HS
Aleksi Teivainen – HT
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Photo: Miska Puumala