As featured in Edition 39, available here.
BY SURINA RUMPAL (1st year - Politics and International Studies with Global Sustainable Development - Buckinghamshire, UK)
For most 12-year olds, marriage is a thing of the distant future, yet this is not the reality for hundreds of young girls in Iraq.
Currently, there is an ongoing court case in Iraq where a judge was asked to legitimise a marriage between a 12-year-old girl and her 25-year-old stepfather’s brother. This sparked protests in the Kadhamiya neighbourhood of Baghdad, ignited by the girl’s mother who used social media to implore local authorities to help her daughter. The mother explained that her daughter had been sexually assaulted and forced into the marriage. However, a government department that deals with violence against women said in a statement that, after meeting with the girl, father, and husband, they were confident that she had not been coerced into marriage. Most people would read this in pure horror and disbelief. Surely a 12-year-old child is not mature enough to willingly accept a marriage to a 25-year-old man, and no sane government official would argue that this is legitimate.
Without stating the obvious, there are several reasons why child marriage is extremely dangerous. Girls who enter child marriage are vulnerable to physical health risks, including sexual assault, early pregnancy and delivery, as well as increased chances of miscarriages, which are particularly harmful in rural areas with less than adequate healthcare. There are also mental health risks due to the premature ending of their childhoods, risks of domestic violence, and separation from their families.
This leads me on to why this marriage could potentially be legitimated in the first place. In 2014, a new law was proposed in the build-up to the elections, which would legalise marriage for children as young as nine. This law would also restrict women’s rights in terms of inheritance, parenting, and divorce. Many protested heavily against the bill. Saud Abu-Sayyeh of Equality Now told the Guardian: “This bill contradicts international conventions and the national law in Iraq. If it is approved, in effect, each and every religious sect will follow their clerics. It will be catastrophic for women’s rights”.
The fact this law was proposed in the build-up to the election indicates that a large chunk of the electorate would favour this law and vote for the party proposing it. This is partly as some religious sects in Iraq believe the wife of the prophet Muhammad was nine, meaning children can marry at this age. Whilst this bill was not made law, it highlights the issue that women and children’s rights can be used to score political points.
The current court case reinforces this. The fact that a male judge will decide the fate of a 12-year-old girl emphasises how catastrophic child marriages are for women’s rights. In the words of a protestor, “children should be at home watching cartoons, not be married.” One can only hope that the judge will make the right decision and deny the two to marry, otherwise there could be heavy implications on other children. Once the door is opened, it will be difficult to close it, and many other parents could use this girl’s case to justify marrying off their children.
Despite protests and criticism by human rights activists, there are few Iraqi officials who will help deconstruct this cruel system, mainly as this would lose them electoral support. There are organisations like the UN who are trying to fight child marriage, for instance with the 2016 Global Programme to End Child Marriage, which has assisted 7.9 million girls from 2016-2019. This program has increased education and healthcare access for young girls, as well as helped educate families about the risks of child marriage. However, child marriage is still rampant in Iraq, with 24% of marriages being child marriages in 2016, compared with 9% in 1997.
Whilst there are international laws, such as The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which states that marriage under the age of 18 is a form of forced marriage, Iraqi law conflicts with this, with Article 8 of Iraq’s Personal Status Law stating that a judge can authorise underage marriage if they can conclude the action is urgent, or if the father gives their approval.
So, what can be done to stop this? It will take years of deep-rooted reforms, starting with an increase in female education, in order to get more women in positions of power where they can then instigate urgent change. Corruption lies at the heart of this cruel system, so more checks and balances must be implemented in order to check the power of current political officials. Whilst protestors and human rights activists can raise international awareness, change must start from within the broken system in order to stop the injustice that is child marriage.
Image: Flickr (The U.S. Army)