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 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 United Nations 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, ahead of 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, 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.
“We are outraged, and 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.”
Humans Rights Watch said it was examining the amendment and would be issuing a statement about how far-reaching the law could be.
Belkis Wille, Iraq and Qatar researcher at Human Rights Watch, 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.”
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. Karen McVeigh