Children who learn about sexuality before their pubescence are stripped of their innocence. Those who learn about it firsthand through childhood marriage, know life akin to slavery. Their lives are effectively ended before they have begun. In Iraq a new law is set to pass as the parting statement of the ruling Shi’a Islamist Virtue Party prior to the April 30 elections: children – that is, girls – at nine years old or younger will be allowed to be married-off. The losses to individual human rights, family, and community are uncountable.
The proposed Ja’afari Personal Status Law has received criticism from human rights activists. Basma al-Khateeb, a women’s rights activist, says the law legalizes inequality. Even the former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi issued a warning that the passage of this law would certainly bring about abuse of women. The law would mirror a similar one from Shi’a-dominated neighbor Iran, and would alter Iraq’s current legal age limit of 18 (or 15, with a guardian’s approval).
Other aspects of the law include requiring a wife to submit to her husband’s sexual demands, which the U.S. group Human Rights Watch identifies as condoning marital rape, and the ruling establishes regulations surrounding polygamous marriages. There are provisions for women – well, girls, age nine and up – to divorce their husbands.
However, the penalty in the law for divorce – whether the choice is of the female or is forced upon her – is the permanent loss of her children. Fathers are automatically granted custody of all children over the age of two from divorces. Hanaa Edwar of the women’s rights group, Al-Amal (Hope in Arabic), says this law is “a crime against humanity” and means the deletion of female rights in Iraq. In fact, the law would violate the international Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The political reason for this new impending Iraq law is the garnering of Shi’a Moslem votes. Supporters of the impending law say that it will not greatly change protections, status or legalities in Iraq, since many specific cases are handled through the religious courts. They say that this law will enhance religious freedom without needing to go to court to do so.
For families in Iraq, however, they face the loss of their children as well as the innocence and childhood of their girls. Parents worldwide comply with such laws for differing reasons, ranging from tradition to poverty, including gender roles and what they see as security for their daughters. Sometimes marrying their daughters off is the only way that parents can assure that they will be fed. Often a dowry is less if a bride is young and uneducated.
Early marriage is one of the key barriers that adolescent girls face in getting an education. (Other obstacles to education include child labor, natural disasters, gender violence, violent conflict, insufficient access to healthcare, and human trafficking.) Every extra year in school is a gain for the girl and the economic system as a whole, and every year marriage is delayed is a gain.
Throughout the world, the number of girls married as children numbers 14 million per year, a staggering amount. It is estimated that, without any intervention, that tally will climb to 142 million by the end of the decade. Of the top 20 most affected countries, child marriage is most prevalent in Africa: Niger, Central African Republic, Chad, Guinea, Mali, South Sudan, Burkina Faso, Malawi, Mozambique, Eritrea, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Zambia, and Ethiopia, in that order. It is also common in some Asian countries: Bangladesh, India, and Nepal. And, it can be found in the Caribbean/Central American countries of Dominican Republic and Nicaragua.
According to the organization, Girls Not Brides, solutions to ending child marriage must be rooted in the fabric of each unique community and its circumstances. The group has issued a technical brief, entitled Ending Child Marriage: What Works? A Look at the Evidence. In general, some ways that communities can delay the age of marriage are first, to educate and empower girls. Empowerment can happen when girls have support networks and safe places to congregate outside of their homes. This can reduce girls’ vulnerability and their sense of isolation. (See video below.)
Other ways to reduce loss of children to marriage – in Iraq and elsewhere – are to engage an entire community, by appealing to men and traditional leaders, by working to enact minimum legal age for marriage, by introducing incentives, by raising public awareness through the media, and by educating entire communities. In this way, not only innocence, but lives can be maintained.
By Fern Remedi-Brown
The Telegraph UK
The Telegraph UK
The Majalla: the Leading Arab Magazine
Girls Not Brides
Conversation with Lindsay Palazuelos, International Program Officer, Equipo Técnico de Educación en Salud Comunitaria (ETESC, Technical Team for Education in Community Health), Partners in Health, August 27, 2013.
Film, Girl Rising