An Iraqi court has resumed hearing a case in which a judge was asked to formalise a religious wedding between a 12-year-old girl and a 25-year-old man. The court, located in Baghdad’s Kadhamiya district, adjourned the case last week amidst demonstrations.
Demonstrators had been chanting “No to child marriage” and “Marrying children is a crime against children”.
The case caught national attention when the girl’s mother — in a video on social media — called on authorities to save her daughter. She told local media her daughter had been raped and forced into a marriage to her stepfather’s brother.
The Ministry with responsibility for violence against women and girls released a statement that after meeting the girl, her father, and her husband, it was reassured she had not been coerced into marriage.
Though this case has drawn scrutiny, many cases occur with little scandal, according to legal professionals.
“This case gets particular media attention because the mother of the young girl went on social media and stirred up nationwide discussion,” Mariam Albawab, a Baghdad-based lawyer who works on children’s rights cases in Iraq, told Al Jazeera.
“However, there are thousands of cases that have gone under the media radar, and many of those marriages went ahead without much notice or condemnation.”
The legal age for marriage is 18 in Iraq, but the law says it can be lowered in “urgent” cases if the father consents to marriage.
Child marriage is common in Iraq, especially in rural areas. Poverty drives many parents into marrying their young daughters off, hoping it will either ease the burden of the financial burden on the family or bring in more resources.
According to the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS) conducted by the government of Iraq published in 2018, 7.2 per cent of married women aged 20 to 24 were first wed before they turned 15 years old, and another 20.2 per cent were married before age 18.
Due to entrenched gender inequality worldwide, girls remain disproportionately impacted by child marriage. Globally, the prevalence of child marriage among boys is just one sixth of that among girls.
Girls who enter child marriage are susceptible to physical health risks including rape, early pregnancy and early delivery. They are also vulnerable to psychological and emotional harm, due to premature ending of their childhoods, separation from their families, and possible domestic violence.
Although Iraq has criminalised rape, the government can drop charges as long as the victim and perpetrator get married. Since Iraq has not criminalised rape between spouses, there is no legal remedy against sexual assault once girls are married.
The court’s ruling in this case could be a watershed moment in the campaigns for or against child marriage.
Iraq’s Personal Status Law forbids child marriage and increases women’s marriage and custody rights. There is a pushback against article 8 of Iraq’s Personal Status Law which allows for a judge to authorise an under-age marriage if the judge concludes that the action is urgently necessary or if the father of the bride gives his approval to the marriage.
There are also those pushing for child marriage to be easier, and proposed amendments to the Personal Status Law to abolish legal difficulties when forcing children into marriage.
The parliament in Iraq has so far rejected these proposals, including an amendment that would allow religious communities to have their own family laws.