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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Outcry in Iraq over proposals to legalise marriage for girls as young as 9

The proposed amendments to Iraq's personal status law, which were introduced by the council of representatives on November 1, would codify marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody procedures under religious law

A schoolgirl passes by a banner promoting a draft personal status law based on the teachings of the Jaafari school of Shiite religious jurisprudence, in Baghdad on March 13, 2014. The banner reads: "The Jaafari personal status law saves my rights and my dignity." Karim Kadim / AP
A schoolgirl passes by a banner promoting a draft personal status law based on the teachings of the Jaafari school of Shiite religious jurisprudence, in Baghdad on March 13, 2014. The banner reads: "The Jaafari personal status law saves my rights and my dignity." Karim Kadim / AP

As a young girl she would talk to her doll about the troubles and miseries she felt. She remembers not knowing "what marriage was or any of its responsibilities”.

Now 30 years old, the Iraqi woman recalls how her childhood was taken away from her after she was forced to marry at the age of 12.

“They punished me because I had a doll. She was the only one that listened to me at a time when no one listened,” the unidentified woman tells Unicef in a video released this month. She rejected the man she was married to “because it was forced, I hadn’t hit puberty yet”.

With Iraq torn apart by conflict and economic hardship and the future uncertain for many Iraqis, early marriages have become more common.

Now, a draft law put forward by Iraqi lawmakers threatens to put many more young girls at risk of forced and early marriage, and make them vulnerable to sexual abuse.

The proposed amendments to Iraq's personal status law, which were introduced by the council of representatives on November 1, would codify marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody procedures under religious law, allowing girls as young as nine to wed.

The move has sparked outrage from women's rights groups.

“The proposed bill is wrong in so many ways, it’s a blow on women’s rights and to society," Samira Talal, an Iraqi women’s rights activist, said. "This was done to marginalise societal problems that we are encountering on a daily basis to divert our attention from what is really going on.”

Iraq’s current personal status law, introduced in 1959, is considered to be one of the most protective of women’s rights in the region. It is applied to all Iraqis regardless of their religious beliefs and sets the legal age of marriage at 18. In "urgent" cases, however, a judge is allowed to permit girls as young as 15 to marry.

The current personal status law bans forced marriages and restricts polygamy.

Under the new amendments, however, Shiite girls would be allowed to marry from the age of nine in line with the teachings of the Jaafari school of Shiite religious jurisprudence. The school was established by the sixth Shiite imam, Jaafar Al Sadiq.

Belikis Wille, Iraq and Qatar researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that the mooted changes — which were first proposed in an earlier, more extreme bill introduced in 2014 — were "catastrophic".

“The fact that this is not the first time the proposal was introduced is deeply disturbing,” Ms Wille added.

“It’s a step backwards for Iraq, a country where there are many initiatives to improve women’s rights. Now [after ISIL’s defeat] is the time to assert more clearly that everyone in Iraq has equal rights.”

Ms Wille confirmed that HRW is studying the draft law and will be issuing a statement about how far-reaching it could be.

Meanwhile, the United Nations assistance mission in Iraq (Unami) has urged that women’s rights be fully recognised and protected.

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“Women and girls in Iraq have suffered violations of their basic human rights and violence in armed conflict, in particular under ISIL’s rule,” Unami said.

Jan Kubis, the special representative of the secretary general for Iraq, called upon Iraq's council of representatives "to seize this opportunity of the process to amend the personal status law, repeatedly criticised by the United Nations treaty bodies, and conduct a wider consultation on the draft amendments in a participatory manner to recommit to and ensure the full respect, protection and fulfilment of women and girls’ rights in Iraq in relation to matrimonial and other matters".

On November 1, the council of representatives voted in principle to approve the proposed bill which was put forward by 40 members of parliament. It now needs the support of 165 politicians, more than half of the body's 328 representatives, to become law. But the draft law is not yet on the parliamentary agenda and it not clear when a vote on it will be held.

In the meantime, opponents of the bill are making their voices heard. Public demonstrations were held in Baghdad last weekend by women’s rights and civil society groups.

“It’s a form of societal abnormality that we cannot stand for, it’s an outrage," said Ms Talal.