On one of July’s scorching hot days in the year 2015, Huda, a 13-year old girl, bade farewell to her family who was then staying at ‘Alkhazer’ makeshift refugee camp east of Mosul. She was looking much forward to a new life outside the walls of what seemed to be a graveyard for living humans, as described by her own self.
Her wedding was overshadowed with a mixture of both fear and joy; joy for being ridden of the poverty and latent sense of despair from living in an inhuman encampment devoid of indispensable services, where a whole family is packed in a tent; and ‘fear from being married to a person completely unknown to her, and who is 20 years older than her’.
In that same encampment, four major girls were married in a month or so, as investigated by the author of this investigation. That very same scene was repeated as monitored and watched by some organizations and journalists in 20 other encampments, which were all erected hurriedly in the two governorates of Dahouk and Erbil, north and east of Ninewa Governorate, which was then occupied by ‘ISIL’ Organization (in Arabic Daesh) who declared their so-called ‘Islamic State’. Ninewa received between mid 2014 and end of 2016 hundreds of thousands of émigrés fleeing ‘Daesh’.
Girls under 15 were all forced to get married in time of war, anarchy and powerlessness. They were compelled to leave the flowery world of childhood, games and dreams under the threat of poverty and fear from the future and move to the adults’ world with its heavy responsibilities and requirements. All that was done under societal traditions which deprive them the right of choice or protest, in the absence of deterring legislations or official establishments interfering to put an end to such farces
While cuddling her 3-month baby close to her breast, trying to appease her after a wave of crying from some inflammations in its mouth, Huda says, “After moving away from the war-torn Mosul, fleeing Daesh, and after months of humiliating life and suffering from paucity and disease in the camp, I found in marriage a chance of salvation from such miserable life and in the meantime relieve my family of my burden.”
Without any delay, Huda accepted the first man proposing to her, even without knowing or asking about him, simply because he possesses a house and a store securing him a medium income. That what exactly thousands of other immigrant girls had done.
She went on saying, “I have no other option, being in a family consisting of 6 individuals without any source of income”.
Huda’s marriage didn’t last more than 14 months, after which she preferred to be divorced and return to the miserable camp holding an infant in dire need of care. She helplessly chose to do so, after tasting the bitterness of her husband’s severity and the cruelty of his family, giving up all her legitimate rights. “I don’t then know that life with a husband 20 years older than me, a husband looking upon me as a slave subjugated to satisfy his instincts, is one thousand times worse than the hard life in a refugee camp.”
Huda’s friend got married in the same month, before she could even complete her 15 years of age. Nothing was heard from her for months after she was prevented from leaving the house or speaking on the phone. She had no option but to run away from her spouse’s house one evening and return to her family as an unwelcome guest, being chased most of the time by comments and advice. She is a woman threatened to be divorced, without any education or job opportunity, with no option but to “submit to reality and return to her husband”.
She said,” I felt like being abducted, wondering a score of times every day whether to flee and be back to my family who sold me cheaply. I’m a mother carrying on my life as a subjugated slave, obedient to the instincts of a person older than me and treating both me and his first wife as slaves. I have no passion or intimacy for a man I found myself at his mercy through a socio-financial settlement.”
As per activists in the field of women and children’s rights, there are tens of thousands of early marriage victims throughout the war-torn country, something which is also confirmed by official figures.
One Third of Married Women are under Ages
The Central Statistics Apparatus revealed in 2011 that 5.4% of Iraqi females had been married at the age of 15, and 23% wedded before 18 years of age, whereas the family social and economic survey conducted by Iraq’s Planning Ministry disclosed in 2007 that 21% of girls got married before reaching their 19 years of age, compared to 15% between 1997 and 2004 when Iraq was hardly hit by the economic sanctions imposed on the country.
In 2013, the Ministry of Planning mentioned that 11% of major marriage cases were carried out within the courts whereas a larger percentage of marriages were registered outside the courts.
Ali Shoukry, Minister of Developmental Planning and Cooperation, said in July 2013 on the occasion of celebrating the Universal Population Day that 5.5% of married women wedded before reaching 15 years of age whereas 23.4% got married before the age of 18.
Such figures were declared before ISIL’s occupation of large regions of the country and the immigration of over three million people outside their homes, and prior to the escalation of the economic crisis in the country after the deterioration of oil prices in the world markets and consequently the decline of the country’s resources.
During that period no new official statistics were carried out. The concerned authorities including the Ministry of Planning, the Supreme Judiciary Council, and the Child and Woman Committee of Iraq’s parliament, all confirm they do not have any recent figures.
The spokesman for the Ministry of Planning, Abdel Zahra Al-Hendawy, says that the ministry does not actually possess any statistics for majors’ marriages or the percentage of their divorces among the total number of divorcees.
Meanwhile, the spokesman for the Supreme Judicial Council, Judge Abdul Sattar Al- Beraqdar, stresses their non possession of any statistics on the marriage of majors, “Simply because the weddings of the under-aged most often take place outside the courts by a man of religion, as the current law prohibits the marriage of majors.” he elaborates.
The very same comment was also repeated by The Child and Woman Committee of Iraq’s Parliament, bringing to our notice that the revelation of such figures falls under the responsibility of the Ministry of Planning.
Hence, in the absence of official figures, there is confirmation from some organizations concerned with woman’s rights such as ‘Baghdad Women Society’, and ‘Lydia Organization’, and from some field studies conducted by academic researchers during the last five years, and from a number of surveys and questionnaires carried out in some specific courts in Baghdad – confirmation that the rates of major marriage cases are still escalating and that more than one third of marriages are majors, the larger group of whom are between 15 and 17 years of age.
An activist concerned with feminine rights named ‘Feyan Ahmed’ observes that the rates of major marriages in cities situated south of the country register higher figures due to the rise of poverty rates (roughly 30%), dropouts, scarcity of job opportunities there, in addition to the tribal customs and traditions. Such rates also escalate in the regions which witnessed violence operations and large numbers of émigrés from Kleanoy, Saladin, and Al-Anbar. “Some families prefer getting their daughters married to bearing their responsibilities.” she said.
The situation is not quite different in Kurdistan region, where the economic and security conditions are relatively better. During the last three years, 30% of the marriages included the age group between 15 and 20 years, as per the results of field researches conducted by ‘Lydia Organization’ and was discussed in a seminar.
MP ‘Rizan Sheikh Dlear’, member of Women and Childhood Committee at the Council of Representatives, refers to the absence of precise statistics, since most of the marriages are carried out outside courts. She elaborates saying, “But there are terrible figures about the number of majors getting married at young ages. This most often happens in the areas sheltering large numbers of displaced immigrants, where most marriages are completed outside courts, some are getting married at the age of nine.”
That all happens under a personal status law that allows the marriage of female majors due to the presence of loopholes, or as a result of the judicial applications that permit the registration of marriage contracts done outside the courts.
A legal expert and rights’ activist, ‘Ragaa Rahma’, affirms that several gaps in the laws are exploited to justify the marriage of under age girls at the personal status courts, to the extent that some lawyers have been specialized in this kind of marriages.
“It’s a catastrophe and no one seeks a solution. Young girls are compelled to get married, turning their dreams into nightmares, in the presence of broken families… One can find in every residential district married majors living a threatened life, resulting in the terrible rise of divorce cases.” she said.
Iraq’s amended personal status law N0 (188) of 1959, conditioned the completion of (18) years for marriage in the first paragraph of Article N0 (7), but the first two paragraphs of Article (8) of the same law stipulate:
- If whoever completes the 15 years of age demands marriage, the judge is entitled to allow it, if he could prove her eligibility and physical fitness and after the approval of her legitimate guardian. And if the guardian disagrees, the judge requests his approval within a period defined by him. And if he does not object to the marriage, or his objection is not worthy of consideration, the judge permits the marriage.
- The judge is to allow the marriage of whoever reaches 15 years of age if he finds a maximal need for that. Permission is conditional on the verification of the legitimate puberty and physical aptitude.
This leaves beyond any doubt a clear legal loophole allowing the possibility of marriage under 18 years of age as ‘Rahma’ suggests.
Such legal gaps in addition to several other drawbacks in judicial applications all lead eventually to the continuation of majors’ marriages and its ratification by personal status courts.
Imperfection of Judicial Applications
The procedures that must in general be followed in the marriage contract have become an indisputable routine work according to what lawyer ‘Donya Al-Rabeehe’ describes it. “Asking the girl about her consent to the marriage is done routinely. The judge asks her without giving her time to explain herself, but he only repeats the words and expects her known reply, and at times he questions while writing on papers without even looking at her face to read its expressions that might show her compulsion to accept. Most judges see that the mere presence of the bride in the court implies her prior consent to marriage.” she said.
That is the way all procedures are taken, including permission of majors’ marriage. That what happened with the 16 years old ‘Leila’, who resides in Baghdad, after her father submitted an application to the judge concerned with personal status court, assuring that she reached her legitimate puberty that could legally qualify her for marriage.
Laila says, “The judge contented himself with having a glance at our application form and the enclosed certificate issued by a man of religion, without asking me a single question. And soon after getting his approval to our request, I got married to a man 23 years older than me without being asked about my opinion. They looked upon my approval as something beyond question. That’s the way things are going and that what has made me shackled with fear now and horrified of my future. I was compelled to marry according to the law and in front of a judge giving his approval in a couple of minutes and everything was done within red tape proceedings.” she said.
Lawyer “Selim Al-Daraggy, a good follower of personal status cases, says,” In this case, the judge reclined on Paragraph (1) of Article (8) of the personal status law, which authorizes the judge to approve a major’s marriage after proving her puberty and physical capability. He looked upon the clergyman’s certificate as evidence to that, and regarded the father’s mere submission of the application form as consent to marriage without investigating the major’s opinion.”
“That’s regarded as a clear blemish in the implementation of the personal status law, which is originally defective. Al-Daraggy exclaims and goes on clarifying that the abovementioned article “is conditional on the marriage application be submitted by the major herself, and the judge has to make sure that it’s the major who requests.”
Marriage outside Courts
One of the imperfection hinges permitting the majors’ marriages is actually the marriage concluded through men of religion outside the courts, at what is called ‘Sharia Offices’, (supposed to apply Islamic law known in Arabic as Sharia) That is something available and common under a legal penalty which has no existence on the ground of reality, hence marriage contracts are to be ratified later on at the courts.
Paragraph (5) of Article (10), concerning the punishment inflicted for marriages concluded outside the courts reads as follows; ” Any man concluding marriage outside the court is punished by a period not less than 6 months and not more than a year, or pay a fine not less than 300 Iraqi dinars, and not more than 1000 Iraqi dinars. The penalty becomes not less three years and not more than five years if another marriage is contracted outside the court with the existence of another marriage.”
And with the slackness in the application of punishment, or even the effectuation of the smallest penalty of 1000 Iraqi dinars fine (less than one US dollar) , marriage outside the court, with all its risks, has become something available and an easy outlet for the marriage of the under-aged girls.
Lawyer ‘Rahma’ said that one of the judges was compelled a few days before to conclude the marriage of a 13-year old girl to an 18-year old youth, only because their legitimate marriage was concluded by a man of religion. Such cases are repeated on a large scale in the courts, something that can be regarded as imposing a ‘fait accompli’ on courts.
The issue is not only confined to mere individual cases, but there are actually tens of thousands of cases throughout the country. Roughly (9800) marriages outside courts had been registered in Baghdad only during the year 2017, according to the figures of the Judicial Council, whereas about (59,000) cases were recorded allover Iraq, excluding Kurdistan region, a large part of which includes marriage of majors, whose families want to impose what is known as a ‘fait accompli’ or rather an accomplished fact on the courts.
That is how the 15-year old ‘Sara’ who resides in ‘Al-Shohla’ region in Baghdad got married, after a document proving her marriage outside the court was submitted to the judge. She told her story to a classmate at the preparatory school, who in turn told it to the preparer of this investigation.
” One day, she was absent from school, and when I contacted her she said that she was forced to get married, and no one can rescue her.”, she said.
Legislation of a New Law
Despite the legal loopholes that now permit the marriage of major girls, yet the present law is considered acceptable, compared to a draft law which some representatives attempted to pass in the course of the last parliamentary session. Their bill could have opened the door wide open for the marriage of the under-aged girls. That had actually been their third attempt to pass their bill since 2003.
A woman’s rights activist named ‘Soad Qasem’ says,” We don’t know how to ever stop such a crime committed against children lacking awareness, and against helpless major girls lacking will, while being subjugated to their families, and the result is most often a failed marriage, or a divorce in a society that seems to have no mercy for the divorcees.”
She adds,” The matter is not only related to the majors’ physical aptitude, but to the awareness of the real meaning of marriage, and ability to take a decision that will define your destiny, and draw the line for your future life, which will be rather difficult to have it changed anytime in the future”.
She then asked, “Are the female representatives who supported that legislation, claiming to give the girl the right of choice to build up a family and enjoy a married life – are they ready to let their daughters marry at the ages of 9 or 16?
In addition to the legal loopholes and other judicial complexities, there are other aspects to the phenomena of majors’ marriages that need to be taken into considerable account, such as the tribal traditions and the religious texts, which are regarded as a basis in the issue of the girl’s marriage. And most often the law and jurisdiction stick to them through seeking the ways that prevent any clash or confrontation with faith or communal traditions, according to what lawyer Donya Al-Rabehy said.
Interpenetration of Faith and Customs
Juristic sects differ among themselves about defining the marriage age of girls. Some say 9 years, others say 13 or 15, something that can open the door for the marriage of majors while creating a wide area for religious interpretations, regarding the legitimate age of marriage, regardless of any change in the present reality.
Feminist activist, Ibthaal Jassem, says that the first reason behind the marriage of majors is represented in our social and clannish inheritance, which is enveloped with the ‘religious and juristic framework’. She stressed that the tribal and masculine character of the Iraqi society,’ took faith as a framework to justify whatever can consolidate that heritage.’
Sheikh Abu Qaysar Al Gabourri, a man of religion residing in Al-Hussaneya popular neighborhood, says that such habits are of Sunni and clannish nature, which encourage the marriage of girls at a young age for several reasons including the consolidation of social coherence. He says that one of the reasons behind the deepening of such traditions is represented in distancing both males and females from sin (illegal sexual relations) and in the meantime increase the offspring, simply because when the girl gets married at a younger age, she can give more and more births and the family gets bigger and bigger.
Sheikh Ahmad Hassan illustrates the Islamic Law “Sharia’ position on this issue, saying, ‘Sharia with its different juristic sects allows the permissibility of the girl’s marriage before reaching her 18 years of age, in a sense it is possible but not obligation.”, clarifying that this marriage is legal if it does not cause any harm resulting from any specific case. “For instance, if the girl is green or her body is still small, or if she is not mindful or mentally mature.” he said.
On the other hand, Sheikh Jassem Al-Mandalawy, suggests that men of religion should challenge this phenomenon through explaining and clarifying “the subsidiary aspects of the issue within the context of ‘Don’t harm or be harmed “. He pointed out that if the major’s marriage “results in any damage or breakdown of any familial entity, then it are doomed to be prohibited”. He assures that “forcing an under age girl to marry against her will is a sin, and makes her marriage contract legitimately illegal.”
Escape from Poverty
The rate of poverty which had reached roughly 23% in 2014 according to the figures of the Ministry of Planning and more than 30% as per some MPs, is considered the most significant cause behind early marriages. And with the immigration of more than three million Iraqis away from their homes, fleeing the war against ISIL Organization, a favorable environment for the early marriages of majors had been created.
Lamiaa Al-Jawarry, a social researcher, says, ” Some families were obliged to unite their daughters in wedlock in spite of their young ages under the pressure of their inability to bear the cost of their living and education, a sorry state of affairs that had eventually led to the rise of the rates of not only early marriages but also of divorces.
She monitored in the course of a field research conducted at the Personal Status Court of Mosul more than 40 divorce cases within 3 months, all for majors. “The bad living condition was most often the motive behind the marriage of 35 cases from amongst them, so long as ‘Sharia’ allows this, and does not regard it as a taboo or a sin as they repeatedly claim”, she said. That what made ‘Sabah’ get divorced after six years of marriage; an experience described by her mother as ‘bitter’ in her desperate attempt ‘to escape from poverty’.
With her pale face and baggy clothes, she could not hide her childhood, while standing before the Personal Status Court of Mosul, waiting for her turn to end her divorce procedures. She said while leaning on a small wall, ” My widow mother could not support four children in ‘Bahraqa’ encampment in the outskirts of Erbil after our immigration from Mosul.”.
She added while looking ashamedly down, trying to hide her pale face with her divorce claim papers, “After suffering and serving in households, my mum took the decision of my marriage and everything was completed within days.”
MP ‘Rizan Sheikh Dlair’ affirmed that the Council of Representatives is quite aware of what is actually happening in the immigration camps. “Female émigrés are exposed to trafficking, coercive and early marriage, according to the results of some field visits.”, she said
She pointed out that around 30% of the women sheltered in one of Kurdistan makeshift camps (without revealing its name) were exposed to trafficking and early and coercive marriages, in the absence of any official check-up of their terribly dire conditions.”
Fear of the Future
In addition to neediness as a main motive for the marriage of the under-aged girls, there is the fear of the future. Yazidis suffered badly from that fright after being exposed in August, 2014 to annihilation operations at the hands of the so-called Islamic State ‘ISIL’, when over 300,000 Yazidis found themselves overnight in immigration encampments, and more than 3,000 women and girls had fallen captives by the organization’s militants who turned them into slaves, the destiny of most of them is still unknown, as per the figures declared by the Yazidi Endowment Circle. That what made Yazidis accelerate the marrying of their daughters.
Yazidi rights activist, Ihsan Abdullah, confirmed the occurrence of hundreds of major marriage cases within the shelter camps, to which they paid visits in the wake of the extermination crimes inflicted on them.
He said that marriages were simply concluded by men of religion without any wedding ceremonies. Later on, marriage contracts were registered in the official records of the courts.
“Everything was happening within hours, and the under-aged bride moves from her family’s tent to her neighboring bridegroom’s one.”, he said.
That is how ‘Amira’ got married at the age of 16 in July 2014, and her spouse immigrated to Germany a week after consummating their marriage.
She says, ” He has not yet obtained his right to asylum. I’ve been waiting for him for three years now, and I might wait more other years before we can get reunited. I don’t really know any meaning of my marriage and I’m afraid that he might have another wife. Thank God I don’t have any kids unlike my friend. That could have made things much worse.”
Coercive marriages under the whip of destitution, fright and emergency conditions or financial transactions, most often end in disintegration in the absence of harmony between the two spouses. Such marriages will always be threatened with failure, particularly under the atmosphere of the present social openness. And if a baby is begotten under such circumstances , the situation will be more complicated. Like parents, kids will be turned into victims, all living under many healthy risks”, said the social researcher, Ibthal Al-Jassem.
Al-Jassem sees that the lifeline of the major’s marriage remains confused and overshadowed with suffering and threatened with divorce, particularly if the husband is aged.
” The problems arising from the imbalance between her and her spouse appears quickly, since being under-aged, she does not understand marital responsibilities with her immature mind that still exists in the childhood world. And if the wife accepts her life and could endure familial problems and overcome them, she finds herself after her maturity in the company of an aged husband unable to satisfy her needs as a young wife or comprehend her behavior as a woman in the prime of youth.”, she said.
The negative results for early marriages are not only confined to the social aspects, but extends to include health problems for the wife such as womb laceration and embryos suffocation that might be caused as a result of the immature mother’s low blood pressure as explained by Dr. Somaya Mouhamed, a gynecologist.
She warns that the physique of many girls before reaching the age of 18 is not yet prepared for marriage or pregnancy. That what makes the under aged wife be exposed to many health hazards that might lead to her death or the death of her fetus in some cases”. She confirms that maternity hospitals witness several of such cases that are most often concealed due to our persistent customs and traditions.
Health risks are not confined to the pregnancy or delivery periods. “If both the mother and her baby are rescued, the newly born baby might be exposed to health problems in the future for non-obtaining a fully mature mum during the pregnancy period.”, doctor said.
Organizations concerned with feminine issues warn that women between the ages of 15 and 18 years are twice more exposed to death during pregnancy or at delivery, compared to the women whose ages range between 20 and 24 years, pointing out that majors’ pregnancy is an issue affecting any effort exerted for the development of women, due to their early drop out of education and consequently non-obtaining the basic qualifications required for gaining a job opportunity, particularly youth mothers.
Laila Hassan, a civil activist concerned with children’s rights, says, “The stories of young girls silently undergoing their sufferings, or facing divorce or even committing suicide, are heard everywhere. Hence, after decades of violence and decline of the education system, and with the everlasting high rates of poverty; early marriage has obviously become a phenomenon and with it divorce rates have escalated. Divorce has itself become a big problem under the strict social customs and traditions, and the absence of economic dependency, a state of affairs that makes it hard for the divorcee to get a second marriage opportunity or build a stable life, thus turning her into a prisoner within doors or a servant for her brothers.”.
The Supreme Judicial Council declared that the registered divorce cases in the courts during the year 2017 had exceeded 70,000 corresponding to 321,000 marriage cases (about 22%) excluding the districts’ governorates, at a rate reaching 195 cases daily, whereas that number was only 52,000 in 2015 and 56,000 in 2016. The Federal Judicial Authority says that divorce figures have been escalating since 2014 and most of them are concluded outside courts.
The number of divorce cases registered between the year 2004 and end of 2017 reached 695,000, corresponding to 517,000 between the years 2004 and 2014. During that same period, the marriage cases recorded reached 2,624,000, i.e. 20% of these marriages ended in divorce.
Lawyers following divorce claims affirm that more than half of the divorce cases are majors and those in their twenties. Lawyer Qais Yehia, whose office receives several divorce claims weekly says, ” Six in every 10 divorce cases are either majors or clients in their twenties.”
Other lawyers mention near figures, whereas the authorities concerned with women’s rights are only stressing on the rise of majors’ marriages, without even giving accurate rates.
Meanwhile, the government bodies do not give figures of the rates of majors’ divorcees against the total number of divorce cases. But according to an official statistics, the personal status courts in Babel Governorate, in central Iraq, witnessed the registration of 12662 divorce cases for the age group between 15 and 30 years of age, against 89878 marriage cases registered during the last four years.
And based on the research and field studies conducted by Baghdad University on divorce cases, the author of the investigation thereof looked through it to find out that the above studies came to the conclusion that the most prominent reason behind the rise of divorce cases was attributed to early marriage.
A civil activist, Ali Adel, views that the problem of majors’ marriages will not only continue but it will get more complicated, unless deterrent procedures are taken against whoever dares to facilitate such a kind of marriage, whether they are families or religion men.
Ali suggested an indispensable condition to put an end to such a widespread phenomenon, namely, rectification of the loopholes in the present personal status law, and the ratification of deterrent legislations by parliament against anyone daring to assist in concluding such marriages.”.
He regards such procedures as the first step to solve this urgent problem, and thinks that moving towards the opposite direction will bring about catastrophic results that will eventually destabilize the society.
In the same context, a media woman, Inseggam Al-Gharawe, calls for the issuance of a religious ‘Fatwa’ through an accredited reference or Sheikh, in which he recommends the prohibition and non-permissibility of such kinds of marriages”. She does attach a paramount importance to that due to the decisive effect the religious factor can no doubt bring out.
Another activist, Elham Abdullah, demands stopping the function of the offices working on concluding or facilitating teenagers’ marriages outside courts. She refers to monitoring cases of under-aged girls, being married more than once before reaching their 18 years of age, in a way that seems to turn some weds into a kind of human trafficking.
Huda who was deprived of her childhood sits every evening at the door of her tent holding her little daughter, away from other women. She seems to be looking at the place where she was used to sit a year and a half before with her friend ‘Hend’, of whom she heard nothing after being reunited with her husband.
She says, ” My life came to an end. All I hope now is to secure my daughter a life better than mine. I also wish the laws that are now allowing families to let their children get married and let their destinies decided forever be changed.”
This investigation was achieved with the support of the Network of Iraqi Investigative Journalism “NIRIJ’ and under the supervision of Dolfan Browerry, with Al-Menasa.