(photo) Young Iraqi children pose for a photo on the day their new school is opened in Taji, Iraq, March 20. Photo by Spc. Jason Young (Flickr/DVIDSHUB)
At the age of 9, most kids are getting ready to begin third grade.
In Iraq, 9-year-old girls could have a very different fate awaiting them under a proposed law now being considered by the Iraqi parliament.
A group of lawmakers in parliament voted to move forward with a bill that would allow religious courts throughout Iraq to grant marriages to girls as young as 9 — a change that could have a devastating effect on girls’ opportunities to go to school, lead healthy lives, and become members of their country’s economy.
The official marriage age in Iraq is currently 18, though judges can make exceptions that allow girls as young as 15 to marry.
The bill would change that process, allowing religious courts to make exceptions to the law for girls as young as 9, an age that reportedly comes from some interpretations of the Islamic religion, according to EuroNews.
The draft legislation was approved by 40 MPs, but will need to be voted on by the entire parliament in order to become law, according to EuroNews.
The transfer of power from state courts to religious courts represents a dangerous shift for Iraqis, the human rights group Equality Now said in a statement.
“The organization of personal matters should be the responsibility of the courts and not the executive branch of Sunni or Shiite religious orders. This would create more fractions in the society and among communities,” the group said.
Religious courts — primarily Shia Muslim courts — would also be able to rule on divorce, inheritance, and adoption, according to the group.
Political parties in Iraq have proposed such a shift in the past, and Equality Now pointed out that the proposal could be tied to upcoming nationwide elections in May, 2018.
In 2014, the Shia-aligned Fadila party proposed a similar policy change in order to shore up the Shiite vote, according to Reuters; the policy ultimately did not pass.
“This is an attempt by Fadila to show Iraqis that they represent the Shia and want to make their identity clear before the election,” professor Hassan al-Shimari, a political analyst at Baghdad University, told The Guardian at the time. “Everything is changing on a daily basis, and the division between the Shia themselves keeps being redefined.”
“It’s a completely shameless political stunt,” Haider Ala Hamoudi, associate professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, told Reuters in 2014.
Equality Now said in a statement that the bill was "a complete violation of these girls' human rights and could destroy their lives. Iraq must be held to its commitments under international law to end child marriage and not pass this bill."
The Baghdad Women Association and Iraqi Women League also condemned the bill, according to Equality Now.
UNICEF estimates that one in five girls in Iraq is already subjected to child marriage, which puts them at greater risk for health complications — young girls can suffer health consequences from sex and childbirth — as well as missed opportunities at school and in the workforce.
The bill has not yet been scheduled for a full vote.