Substantive MMDA Reforms: In the name of bringing justice to women and girls

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We welcome the news that the Advisory Committee on Muslim Law Reforms has submitted its report on reform of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) to Minister of Justice MUM Ali Sabry on June 21. Transparency and a timeline of the reforms are currently of the utmost importance and urgently needed to protect against the reform process being hijacked and misdirected by detractors, which we note is already taking place. 
We urge the Ministry of Justice to release the report with reform recommendations without delay and give, particularly those most affected, confidence in the reforms to come.

Four substantive MMDA issues 

We endorse the decisions by the Cabinet of Ministers on key substantive issues relating to the MMDA: 1) raising the minimum age of marriage to 18 years without exceptions 2) requiring the consent and signature of the bride to formalise a marriage 3) allowing women Quazis and 4) abolishing polygamy. 

We also remind those reportedly opposing these Cabinet decisions, on the basis that they were not inclusively decided, that the stances on the minimum age of marriage, consent of brides and women as Quazis were also deliberated and agreed by a majority of Muslim MPs in 2019. For over six decades and under various governments, multiple committees have discussed these reforms at several meetings. There was never ‘consensus’; this fact has been used to derail reforms and deny justice to Muslim women and girls. Time and again, Muslim women, who have been most affected by discriminatory provisions under the MMDA, have been purposefully excluded from the male-led conversations about MMDA reform. Groups, such as the ACJU, were never inclusive of Muslim women, nor have they centered the contemporary struggles of Muslim women and girls in their approach to MMDA reforms. 

“Transparency and a timeline of the reforms are currently of the utmost importance and urgently needed to protect against the reform process being hijacked and misdirected by detractors”

State responsibility therefore is a key component of the conversation on reform. These reforms have been part of long-standing calls for MMDA reform by Muslim women’s groups and are directly based on lived realities and hardships within Muslim families. These decisions are indicative of consultative State responsibility at work. We wholeheartedly welcome these four decisions and reiterate that these decisions will ensure that women are not discriminated against or excluded.

Cabinet decision on Quazi system 

Lived experiences of Muslim women reveal serious problems with the Quazi system, with women being denied fair treatment and discriminated against in a multitude of ways. We have consistently raised demands that Muslim women must have equal and fair access to justice. To this end we are concerned about the Cabinet decision to abolish the Quazi system without available information on what will replace it. We request urgent clarity from the Ministry of Justice on how the MMDA will be administered. 

We are fully aware that the current system in the District Court has significant challenges relating to access and delays and is not family-friendly. We understand that similar to the Quazi system it also requires comprehensive reform. We firmly and wholeheartedly hold the position that any judicial system which administers the MMDA must be a better system than what Sri Lankan women, and families in general, currently access. This means it must have clear, equal and non-adversarial procedures, efficient case timelines, improved accessibility and affordability, especially for the low income families.

“Muslim women, who have been most affected by discriminatory provisions under the MMDA, have been purposefully excluded from the male-led conversations about MMDA reform”

Comprehensive MMDA reform is long overdue. The delay in implementing the legitimate processes for reform to take place means that Muslim women must continue to bear hardship, experience prejudice and discrimination. We will stand firm against narrow political interests and conservative shortsightedness in seeing this reform through. The time for equality and justice for Muslim women is now. 

(Press release by Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum and Muslim Personal Law Reform Action Group) 
Statements in English, Sinhala and Tamil are available online on 
www.mmdasrilanka.org 
For more information: 
[email protected] 

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