Pro­posed Iraq law could le­galise mar­riage for chil­dren as young as nine

The Guardian - - INTERNATIONAL - Karen McVeigh

A new law that could le­galise mar­riage for chil­dren as young as nine in Iraq would be “cat­a­strophic”, set­ting back women’s rights by half a cen­tury, ac­tivists have said.

The pro­posal, an amend­ment to Iraq’s per­sonal sta­tus law, would al­low cler­ics of Mus­lim sects to gov­ern mar­riage con­tracts.

Pub­lic demon­stra­tions were held last week­end by civil so­ci­ety and women’s rights groups against the amend­ment. The UN mis­sion in Iraq (Unami) called for wider con­sul­ta­tions and for women’s rights to be fully recog­nised and pro­tected.

An ear­lier, more ex­treme ver­sion of the bill pro­voked an in­ter­na­tional out­cry when it was pro­posed be­fore the elec­tions in 2014. The ear­lier ver­sion also re­stricted women’s rights in terms of di­vorce, par­ent­ing and in­her­i­tance.

Op­po­si­tion to the cur­rent pro­pos­als, which were ap­proved this month, has so far con­cen­trated on their im­pact on child mar­riage.

Suad Abu-Dayyeh of Equal­ity Now, based in Jor­dan, said: “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.

“We will be supporting women in Iraq by is­su­ing alerts about the bill. We are also writ­ing let­ters to the speaker of [par­lia­ment] and the pres­i­dent.”

Some re­li­gious sects in Iraq be­lieve the wife of the prophet Muham­mad was aged nine, and say chil­dren of that age can marry, while oth­ers be­lieve chil­dren can do so when they reach pu­berty.

Abu-Dayyeh said: “We are fear­ful we will lose the good laws we have.”

A pe­ti­tion signed by ac­tivists from civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions, gath­ered in Su­lay­maniyah last Sun­day, said: “This new bill to amend the per­sonal sta­tus law will au­tho­rise re­li­gious men to en­force il­le­gal mar­riages and force girls un­der 18 to live with their in-laws. This is a set­back to the achieve­ments Iraqi women made and strug­gled for half a cen­tury ago.”

Hu­man Rights Watch said it would is­sue a state­ment on how far-reach­ing the law could be. Belkis Wille, an Iraq and Qatar re­searcher for the or­gan­i­sa­tion, said: “It fun­da­men­tally un­der­mines in­ter­na­tional law and also Iraqi law. Some re­li­gious sects do not al­low equal rights – in terms of mar­riage and in terms of in­her­i­tance.

“If you read the amend­ment it says very lit­tle. What it does say is re­li­gious lead­ers from in­di­vid­ual sects and re­li­gious tenets will gov­ern mar­riage con­tracts. One would think, in the af­ter­math of Isis, one of the key pri­or­i­ties of the gov­ern­ment would be to as­sert more clearly that every­one in Iraq has equal rights.

“We will be is­su­ing a state­ment about this pro­posed amend­ment, try­ing to ham­mer down how it will erode the cur­rent rights. We will also be talk­ing to MPs to bring pres­sure on them to make sure it will not pass,” said Wille.

On 1 Novem­ber, Iraq’s coun­cil of rep­re­sen­ta­tives voted in prin­ci­ple to ap­prove the new amend­ment, and it has been signed by 40 par­lia­men­tar­i­ans. Iraqi elec­tions will be held in May next year.

The amend­ment states: “It is per­mit­ted to con­duct a mar­riage con­tract for the fol­low­ers of the Sunni and Shia sects, ac­cord­ing to their faith, by those who are per­mit­ted to con­duct such con­tracts as di­rected by the ju­rists of that faith.”

The le­gal age for mar­riage in Iraq is 18, but un­der the cur­rent per­sonal sta­tus law a judge is al­lowed to per­mit girls as young as 15 to marry in “ur­gent” cases. This al­ready vi­o­lates child pro­tec­tions un­der the UN con­ven­tion on the rights of the child, which Iraq rat­i­fied in 1994.

The draft amend­ment would go much fur­ther, putting many more girls at risk of forced and early mar­riage, and mak­ing them vul­ner­a­ble to sex­ual abuse. The treaty de­fines a child as be­ing un­der 18. The draft is not yet on the agenda in par­lia­ment and the tim­ing of the vote is un­clear.

The ver­sion of the bill pro­posed in 2014 in­cluded pro­vi­sions that would have banned Mus­lim men from mar­ry­ing non-Mus­lims, le­galised rape within mar­riage, and pre­vented women from leav­ing the house with­out their husband’s per­mis­sion.

‘It con­tra­dicts na­tional law and in­ter­na­tional con­ven­tions. This bill would be cat­a­strophic’

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