This year, the United Nations World Population Day highlights the growing challenges teenage girls face around the world, including underage marriage and being deprived of education and other basic rights. 

World Population Day was launched in 1989 to raise awareness about population issues and how they affect the international community. This year’s theme, “investing in teenage girls,” seeks to promote their empowerment and end some of the most serious problems they face. 

Often, teenage girls are either deprived education or forced to leave school at an early age. Many are denied access to vital information about their basic rights. And they are often pressured or forced into marriage at a young age — a problem that continues to affect teenage girls in Iran today, particularly in rural areas.  

In February, the UN condemned Iran for its record on underage marriage. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child said in Iran, girls 10 years old or younger were being forced into marriage with much older men. It also warned that the number of underage marriages were on the rise and called for the age of sexual consent to be increased to 16 from nine. The committee urged Iran to look at any existing laws that condoned or “authorized” child sexual abuse.  

According to a government report published in 2015, in 2014, 360 girls under 14 were married in Iran — and out of those girls,  at least 10 were under 10 years old. Another government report found that child marriage is on the rise in Iran, affecting mainly rural areas.

Government figures and research published by the Iran Student Correspondents Association news agency (Iscanews) in 2015 said there are more than 41,000 registered marriages among underage children in Iran, and agreed with the UN officials who claimed the figure could be set to rise. Poverty and dire inequality were said to be key factors. Drug use is also on the rise in Iran, having an increasing impact on family life and posing a considerable risk to children.

Majid Arjomandi, former deputy official for Social Emergency Services, called for better education on the issue be more accessible. The 2015 government report also said that parents are increasingly out of touch with the needs of adolescent girls and fail to provide them with adequate psychological support throughout their teenage years. Girls are expected to abide strict rules within the home, whereas boys were not given such stringent and conservative guidelines to follow.

In the 1970s, Iran’s civil code stipulated that girls could not marry before the age of 18, though a father could make a case for a girl to marry as young as 15 if she was deemed to be mentally and physically mature and a court approved the decision.

After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the first Revolutionary Government repealed Article 23 of Family Protection Act, lowering the age for marriage to 15 for girls and 18 for boys. Later, in 2002, the Expediency Council approved a provision that allowed girls to marry as young as 13, with the permission of a father or guardian.

Taboos around talking about sexual abuse means girls often face pressure to keep silent about what they have been through. The recent report’s findings suggest that sexual abuse is on the rise, but also suggests that more girls are speaking out on the issue, and leaving family homes because of it.

By law, then, a girl can object to the marriage, and prevent it. But since girls under the age of 13 are normally dominated by the wishes and decisions of their fathers, and cannot realistically object, the only hope of preventing such marriages is through the courts. The court can refuse permission if it deems the marriage to be against the interests of the girl, as stipulated by Article 1041 of the Civil Code.

The 2015 report published by the Iranian government revealed that girls are being forced to leave their family homes to escape pressures to enter into underage marriages, sexual abuse, and unstable environments due to drug addiction.

Experts have warned that girls who married at the age of 15 and younger were at risk of “grave physical and psychological” damage. At such a young age, girls’ bodies were often not fully developed, making sexual intercourse and pregnancy dangerous.

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