Iraqi Cabinet Approves Legalizing Marriage For 9-Year-Old Girls

Iraq's Council of Ministers have approved a new draft law that would restrict women's rights in matters of inheritance and parental and other rights after divorce, make it easier for men to take multiple wives, and allow girls to be married from age nine.

The new Personal Status Law, which received the Cabinet's nod on February 25, must now be approved by the parliament to become law.

Human Rights Watch called on the Iraqi Government to withdraw the pending legislation and ensure that Iraq's legal framework protects women and girls in line with its international obligations.

The draft law, called the Jaafari Personal Status Law, is based on the principles of the Jaafari school of Shia religious jurisprudence, founded by Imam Jaafar al-Sadiq, the sixth Shia imam.

Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, warned that "Passage of the Jaafari law would be a disastrous and discriminatory step backward for Iraq's women and girls." "This personal status law would only entrench Iraq's divisions while the government claims to support equal rights for all," he warned.

The draft law would cover Iraq's Shia citizens and residents, a majority of the population of 36 million. It includes provisions that prohibit 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. The law would automatically grant custody over any child age two or older to the father in divorce cases, lower the marriage age to nine for girls and fifteen for boys, and even allow girls younger than nine to be married with a parent's approval.

Justice Minister Hassan al-Shimmari introduced the draft law to the Council of Ministers on October 27, 2013. In December, the council said it would postpone considering the draft until after legislative elections scheduled for April 30, 2014, and after the supreme Shia religious authority approved the draft, which it has not yet done. But the council went ahead and approved it despite strong opposition from rights advocates and some religious leaders.

Iraq's current Personal Status Law, which applies to all Iraqis regardless of sect, sets the legal age for marriage at 18, but allows for a judge to permit girls as young as 15 to be married in "urgent" cases. The draft law's provisions would legalize, rather than try to reverse, Iraq's growing child marriage problem, Human Rights Watch said.

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