Over the past few years, Iraqi girls have been increasingly forced into marriage at an early age. The reasons and means of forced marriages have also changed. Since the establishment of the Iraqi state and until the 1990s, Iraqi girls were betrothed to a stranger or a relative, at the request of her father, who considered his daughter a sort of gift to offer to the suitor. She would not dare to object or even give her opinion on such matters. Iraqi girls were also married off to men from other tribes, as “Diyyah” (blood money), in an attempt to settle disputes between the two tribes. This form of marriage is also known as “Fasliyah,” a sort of compensation paid for a crime that the bride’s brother or a member of her tribe committed against another tribe.
In both types of marriage, the girl had no right to separation or divorce, as she was deprived of all her rights in conformity with tribal customs and traditions. In 1968, the UN demographic yearbook published a chart on divorce rates in nine Arab countries for the period from 1963 to 1967. According to the chart, Iraq had the lowest divorce rate, whereas Egypt topped the list of countries with the highest divorce rate.
In the mid 1970s, the government under Iraq’s former president, Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, issued a decree prohibiting Fasliyah and Diyyah marriages. This decree constituted the first step toward a civilized Iraqi community, which would put an end to the failures of the tribal or Bedouin society. The government’s decision was issued in parallel with a series of decisions imposed by a new community culture. This culture was mainly promoted by the frontal coalition consisting of the then-ruling Baath party, the Iraqi communist party, and several Kurdish parties, under the banner of the National Progressive Front. However, this coalition was fiercely attacked by Saddam Hussein’s regime, which killed the leaders and cadres of the front and destroyed its rules. This violent attack was a primary reason — among many others — that revived tribal and Bedouin customs and traditions, at the expense of the values of a secular state. Unfortunately, women are the main victims of such traditions.
From a happy childhood to a distasteful marriage
The 1990-2003 embargo imposed by the UN Security Council on Iraq contributed negatively to the living conditions of Iraqi citizens. According to FAO’s statistics, the poverty gap widened remarkably in 1995 -1996, to include 71% of the Iraqi population. Consequently, Iraqis suffered from a financial distress that prevented them from buying the most essential commodities. As a result, some fathers forced their daughters into marriage at an early age, hoping that such marriages would lift the burden from their shoulders and provide them with a good dowry. In most cases, the dowry consists of a sum of money paid to the bride’s father as the price of his daughter, who is condemned to a life in which she is totally ignored.
As Saddam Hussein’s regime faltered and the US occupation forces invaded Iraq in 2003, poverty in Iraq worsened. At the time, this poverty was accompanied by bitter sectarian conflicts that separated thousands of Iraqi families inside and outside Iraq. Consequently, early marriages considerably increased, going against all laws and rules set by the official authorities and civil society organizations. In fact, early marriages represent a flagrant violation of human rights and a clear breach of the international conventions and treaties signed by Iraq. Yet, early marriages have increased at an alarming rate since the establishment of the “democratic” Iraqi state in 2003.
In collaboration with the Kurdistan Region Statistics Office and the ministries of health and women’s affairs, the Central Organization for Statistics — a department of the Iraqi ministry of planning — conducted a survey on “the acquaintances, behaviors, and ambitions of Iraqi teenage girls.” According to this survey, the demographic estimates indicate that there are 1.9 million Iraqi girls between the ages of 10 to 14. Moreover, these estimates show that Iraqi girls within this age range represent 6% of the total population in Iraq. Moroever, 65.4% of those girls live in cities, while 34.6% live in rural areas. The survey also shows that 82.4% of these girls are enrolled in schools, compared to 92.9% in the Kurdistan Region.
The 2007 socio-economic survey of families in Iraq shows that 21% of Iraqi girls are married before the age of 19, compared to 15% in 1997 and 2004. In 2011. The Central Organization for Statistics conducted a survey that indicated 5% of Iraqi girls under the age of 15 were married, and around 22% of those under 18 were married. Early marriages have increased at an alarming rate, although in 2010 the ministry of women’s affairs warned that “girls between 15 and 18 are twice as likely to die during pregnancy and while giving birth than women between the ages of 20 and 24.”
Such surveys shed light on the rights of female teenagers, who are most likely to die during pregnancy and child birth.
Legitimacy outside the courts
The Iraqi Law of Personal Status No. 188 of 1988, along with other international laws, forbids marriage under the age of 18. According to this law, Iraqi girls should not get married under the age of 15. It stipulates that girls between 15 and 18 can be married with their parents’ consent and at the discretion of a judge in the court of personal status. However, clerics and sheikhs still have the power to conclude legal written agreements, thus encouraging parents who want to marry their daughters under the legal age. Nowadays, without these agreements, the contracts concluded in Iraqi courts of personal status are not deemed legal or valid.
Soaring divorce rates
Early marriages, the financial independence of working women (mainly after 2003, as women have increasingly received promotions, bonuses and loans), soaring unemployment and the inevitable fate of married couples — who should live with their parents under the same roof — all contribute to increasing divorce rates in Iraq. A field study was conducted by researcher Sajja Abdel Riddah, at the request of a personal status judge in the al-Shaab Court in Baghdad. The study showed that early marriages constantly increased from January to May 2010. According to the same study, the first month of 2010 witnessed 10 cases of early marriage, out of 46 cases of marriage. In the following month, there were 47 cases of early marriage out of 132 marriages. Cases of early marriage increased to include 87 out of 281 marriages concluded in March 2010. In April, Iraq witnessed 100 cases of early marriage out of 297 marriages. As for the fifth month of that same year, there was a sharp increase in early marriages, as the study indicated that the four first days of May registered 36 cases of early marriage out of 50 marriages.
In addition, the study showed that most women married during the same period were aged between 15 and 17. In fact, 244 girls out of 746 women were married in the al-Shaab personal status court in east Baghdad. These figures indicate a continuous increase in early marriages that include girls whose age ranges between 15 and 17. Early marriages represent 30% of total marriages concluded in Iraq.
Moreover, figures published by Iraq’s Higher Judicial Council show that divorce rates have continuously increased since 2004, as 28,690 divorces were registered in that year. In 2005, there were 33,384 cases of divorce compared with 35,627 cases in 2006. In 2007, as sectarian conflicts worsened, 41,560 cases of divorce were registered. Divorce rates considerably rose, reaching 44,116 and 61,466 in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Although divorce rates decreased slightly in 2010, they increased again in 2011. The ministry of social affairs and relevant committees recognized this social issue; however, they failed to find effective solutions to this crisis. The aforementioned committees pointed to three main reasons for divorce: “early marriage in conformity with tribal customs, unemployment and the accommodation crisis.”
Recognition without effective solutions
There might be no easy solutions to addressing these three main factors for divorce, as long as politicians depend on tribal sheikhs to drum up support for their electoral campaigns. These tribal sheikhs often regard themselves as being above the law.
According to statistics from the ministry of planning, the unemployment rate has reached 11%. This rate is inconsistent with the poverty rate, which has increased to 38%, according to the High Committee for the Alleviation of Poverty in Iraq.
The accommodation crisis remains the most serious social problem in the country. According to the UN statistics, Iraq will top the list of countries with the highest rates of early marriage. By 2020, 50 million cases of early marriage might be registered worldwide, according to UN estimates. In the absence of serious measures to contain this global phenomenon, there will be 100 million cases of early marriage by 2030.
The above article was translated from As-Safir al-Arabi, a special supplement of As-Safir newspaper whose content is provided through a joint venture of As-Safir and Al-Monitor.