To most people in the developed world to marry off a 9-year-old girl would be unthinkable. Today, in an effort to attract support from the country’s Shia Muslims’, Iraq’s parliament is set to approve legislation legalizing child marriage and marital rape.

This new legislation, if passed, would rupture the rights of women and girls in a country whose legal code has long been considered one of the most blatantly progressive in the Middle East. Current Iraqi marriage restrictions, which are extremely similar to those present in most Jurisdictions of the United States, does not allow marriage until the age of 18 ( or 15 with a parent’s consent).

This legislation, referred to as “Ja’afari Law,”,  was introduced in February, by Iraqi Justice Minister Hassan al-Shimari, does not explicitly mention the reduction of the minimum age required for marriage but rather sets rules for the divorce of girls at the ages of as young as 9, which the law argues, is when girls reach puberty. The law would
also legalize marital rape, grant men who divorce their wives automatic custody for children over the age of 2, and make it substantially easier for a man to have multiple wives.

Many Iraqi woman, along with others internationally, have recognized this as a huge set back in the women’s rights movement of their country. The “Ja’afari Law,”, which was approved by the Iraqi cabinet on February 25th 2014, is almost identical to the laws on the books in neighboring Iran.

Iraq girls
Photo:  www.aworldatschool.org

 “States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child,”

states article 19 of the United Nations Rights of a Child Conventions, which was passed with a vote of 44 to 25, to which Iraq is a signatory. The legalization of child marriage and marital rape as a combination clearly violates this convention.

Through the backlash Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has remained silent; many speculate that he will refrain from comment until he decides his stance after seeing the majority in parliament. Even without the passage of this new law the rate of child marriage in Iraq is rising. From 1997 the rate of marriages in Iraq occurring under the age of 18 has risen 10%. It is estimated that this is due to the offering of substantial dowries.

The legislation still needs to be passed by parliament, which is not expected to take place until Iraq forms a new government, after elections were held in spring of 2014 and they have still failed to do so. If passed the law would be voluntary; citizens could choose whether to use its tenants to write marriage contracts or wills.

Egyptian women protesting in Tahir Square
Photo:  www.theguardian.com

Despite this activists still worry that the legislation would be imposed on the people of Iraq unwillingly. Many analysts say that the law is unlikely to be passed by parliament and is most likely summed up to be a political pitch summed up to shore up support from conservative Shiites.

The forced implementation of this legislation could lead, to not only much trauma, but a plunge of the civil/women’s rights movements of Iraq and the surrounding countries back into the dark ages. In addition, the Iraqi government is fairly new (there constitution was adopted in 2005, just ten years ago; several previous constitutions had been in its place but the current one was adopted in referendum), a move like this could set an example for future generations of law makers there.

Although what the message would be is not completely clear- it is known that anything that could result from this law being passed would not set a bright path for the strong women of Iraq. There are many organizations aimed at helping these women including Women for Women International, Madre and the National Organization for Women (along with many others).