BAGHDAD — Human rights groups have condemned an Iraqi bill that would permit girls younger than nine from the country's majority Shiite population to marry.
"Passage of the Jaafari law would be a disastrous and discriminatory step backward for Iraq's women and girls," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. "This personal status law would only entrench Iraq's divisions while the government claims to support equal rights for all."
Known as the Jaafari Personal Status Law, the bill was approved by Iraq's Council of Ministers on Feb. 25, and would permit girls to marry, with their father being the only authority who could approve or deny the partnership. The proposed legislation would affect the country's Shiite population, which makes up between 65 and 70 percent of the country's 32 million people.
In addition to its child marriage regulations, the legislation prohibits Muslim men from marrying non-Muslims, "legalizes marital rape by stating that a husband is entitled to have sex with his wife regardless of her consent, and prevents women from leaving the house without permission from their husbands." In instances of divorce, fathers would automatically receive custody of children two years or older.
"Iraq is in conflict and undergoing a breakdown of the rule of law," Basma al-Khateeb, a women's rights activist, told Human Rights Watch. "The passage of the Jaafari law sets the ground for legalized inequality."
Unlike current law that requires girls between the ages of 15-18 to have their parents' permission to marry, while allowing those 18 or older to marry without consent, the new bill does not cite a minimum age. Instead, the only reference to age in the text of the bill, is in its section on divorce, where it gives instructions for girls who have reached the age of nine in the lunar Islamic calendar (8 and 8 months in the Gregorian calendar).
The bill's critics say it specifically mentions age in the divorce section as a way to indirectly authorize child marriage.
The Iraqi Parliament must first ratify the bill for it to go into law, though it is unlikely that this will occur prior to April 30's parliamentary elections. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is Shiite and backs the bill, is expected to attempt to seek a third term.
Iraqi Justice Minister Hassan al-Shimmari, a Shiite, defended the legislation, saying that it was an attempt to regulate child marriage and keep women and girls safe from injustice.
"By introducing this draft law, we want to limit or prevent practices such [as illicit child marriage]," al-Shimmari told the AP.
The average marriage rates in Iraq have dropped in the past 15 years. In 2011, one of the parties in about a quarter of all marriages was under 18, an increase of four percent since 2011 and 10 percent since 1997, the country's government has reported.