Baghdad, Iraq – A court has resumed hearing a case in which a judge was asked to formalise a religious wedding between a 12-year-old girl and a 25-year-old man, raising concerns across Iraq.
It was not clear whether a verdict would be given on Sunday.
The court, located in Baghdad’s Kadhamiya district, adjourned the case last week as demonstrators rallied in front of the court, chanting and holding banners with slogans such as: “Child marriage is a crime against children,” and “No to child marriage”.
“Children should be at home watching cartoons, not be married,” said one demonstrator in front of the courthouse last week. “That’s why we are here today to show our condemnation.”
The case was first brought under the spotlight when the mother of the girl – in a video – called on authorities to save her daughter. The mother told local media her 12-year-old daughter had been raped and forced into a marriage to her stepfather’s brother.
A department of the Ministry of Interior that deals with violence against women, however, said in a statement after meeting the girl, her father, and her husband that it was assured she had not been coerced into marriage.
“No matter what, a marriage between a 12-year-old girl and a 25-year-old man is simply not acceptable,” Hala, an advocate for women’s and children’s rights in Iraq, told Al Jazeera, asking to be identified only by her first name.
The law in Iraq states the legal age for marriage is 18, but that it could be lowered to 15 in “urgent” cases should the person in question’s father consent to marriage.
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), a universal legal document aimed at protecting women’s rights, also states marriage under the age of 18 is a form of forced marriage.
Yet despite the legal provisions, child marriage is rampant in Iraq, especially in rural areas, and other countries in the region. Poverty and religious practices drove many parents into marrying their young daughters off, hoping it would either ease the burden of the family or bring financial support.
According to the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS) conducted by the government of Iraq and published in 2018, 7.2 percent of married women aged 20 to 24 were first wed before they turned 15 years old, and another 20.2 percent were married before age 18.
“Child marriage is a violation of human rights, compromising the development of girls and often resulting in early pregnancy and social isolation, with little education and poor vocational training reinforcing the gendered nature of poverty,” UNICEF, a participant in the survey, said.
Despite the furore surrounding this case, many other girls do not enjoy the same level of attention, according to legal professionals.
“This case gets particular media attention because the mother of the young girl went on social media and stirred up nationwide discussion,” Mariam Albawab, a Baghdad-based lawyer who works on children’s rights cases in Iraq, told Al Jazeera.
“However, there are thousands of cases that have gone under the media radar, and many of those marriages went ahead without much notice or condemnation.”
Save the Children, an international NGO, has called for the minimum age of marriage to be at least 18 years and for the removal of any exceptions to this rule.
“You thought the story in Capernaum would all be fictional, but in fact, its plotline is being replayed every day here in Iraq,” Hala said, referring to the Lebanese film released in 2018 with a story that entailed a money-strapped family trying to sell their 11-year-old daughter in exchange for two chickens.