By Liesl Bradner
It’s nearly incomprehensible for people living in a modern, civilized society to fathom there are still countries where it’s perfectly acceptable for a 40-year-old man to marry a 10-year-old girl. Yet, it’s happening in India, Ethiopia, Nepal and dozens of developing countries.
Iraq has recently put forth a controversial draft law that would allow men to marry girls as young as 9 years old and force their wives to have sex without consent. Women would also not be able to leave the house without their husband’s permission.
Approved by the Justice Ministry Cabinet in February, the Jaafari Personal Status Law, named after Jaafar al-Sadiq, a Shiite imam, has yet to be approved by Iraq’s parliament. Analysts say it’s unlikely to make it through before the April 30 parliamentary elections.
Iraq’s current law sets the legal age for marriage at 18 and forbids divorce. After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Shiite leaders attempted to annul the existing 1959 personal status law citing decades of oppression suffered under the Baathist Sunni minority.
No minimum martial age is stated in the draft law however it mentions a clause allowing girls to divorce at the age of 9, which is a roundabout way of implying they could conceivably marry even younger.
According to Human Rights Watch, one in seven girls in the developing world is married before her 15th birthday—some as young as 8 or 9. The mental and physical health of these young girls is put in danger when they give birth before their bodies have fully developed. Child brides also face a higher risk of domestic abuse and contracting HIV. Very few can escape these marriages unharmed.
In 2008, a 10-year-old Yemeni girl, Nujood Ali, made headlines when she boldly requested a divorce from the 30-something husband she was forced to marry when she was 9.
Thirty-nine thousand young girls are forced into marriage each day, roughly one child bride every 2 seconds. That’s according to the website Too Young to Wed, a partnership between the United Nations Populations Fund and photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair’s VII photo agency. Sinclair has been documenting the issue of child marriage for 11 years. It was while working on a project about self-immolation in Afghanistan that she learned most of the victims were married between the ages of 9 and 13 to much older men. An exhibit of her photos and short film “Too Young To Wed,” is currently on view at the Bronx Documentary Center.
Most of these marriages are dictated by dowries or parents’ burden of feeding an extra mouth. Shrouded in cultural traditions, religion and flawed beliefs that girls go through puberty at 9, many Hindu families believe they will be blessed if they marry off their girls before their first menstruation.
“This law means humiliation for women and for Iraqis in general,” Safia al-Suhail, one of Iraq’s 82 female members of parliament, told The Guardian. “It is a disaster not just for women but for children. These children shouldn’t be exposed to such an ugly situation. It shows that we are going backwards.”