ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Combatting child marriage in the Kurdistan Region means challenging tradition, a struggle especially during a time of conflict, say representatives of the United Nations Popular Fund (UNFPA) and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) who have teamed up to launch a new campaign combating early child marriage.
“Child marriage challenges the fundamental rights of a girl,” Ramanathan Balakrishnan, UNFPA Representative in Iraq, told Rudaw at the campaign’s press conference on Sunday. “Basically, it changes the entire trajectory of her life and makes her less likely to obtain the potential of her life.”
According to Balakrishnan, early child marriage impacts girls and women on a range of issues. “I’m talking about economic opportunities. I’m talking about health attainments. I’m talking about political participation attainments and I’m talking about a whole range of competences about a person’s life,” he added. “So a child marriage basically challenges and limits a girl in attaining all these achievements.”
Combatting child marriage in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region at this time is particularly important because, according to Balakrishnan, early child marriage is typically symptomatic of conflict zones and post-conflict zones.
“It is well known that during conflict situations child marriage often emerges as a negative coping behavior,” Balakrishnan explained. “There is a misconception that marrying a girl early leads to her social and physical security. That is not so. That is a misconception that results in increased levels of child marriage in conflict and post-conflict situations.”
Most girls subjected to early child marriage range from 13 to 15 years-old, but there have been cases with some girls younger than 10. “They think: it’s ok. ‘Now she is a woman,’” said Pakhshan Zangana, the KRG’s Minister of Women’s Affairs.
Zangana recounted to Rudaw situations where girls as young as 9 years old were being married off in the internally displace (IDP) camps. Fortunately, Zangana explained, the practice was stopped due to task forces implemented by the Ministry of Interior.
To combat this war-torn phenomenon, the campaign will focus on both inside the camps and outside. “We have public announcements. We are targeting religious leaders. We are targeting schools,” Balakrishnan said. “We are looking at it as a larger advocacy campaign but we are aware that the situation and the trend of child marriage is a bit higher and more exacerbated in the camps.”
According to Rabiha Abdullah, former Iraqi member of parliament and current member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Election Department, stressed the importance of taking this issue to the religious leaders in the mosques and specifically to the mullahs, Muslim religious leaders.
“They influence many things in the society,” Abdullah explained to Rudaw. “These mullahs have relationships with the Ministry of Religion and they can do a program with them.”
Abdullah explained that the campaign does not stop in the camps or the cities, but will spread to the countryside too where the tradition of early child marriage is especially prevalent. “We also need to visit the villages out of the city in the countryside,” she said. “They need to talk to them about the side effects of child marriage in health, the economy, and the future of the culture.”
“We are looking at a behavioral change program, and any behavioral change program is a challenge to implement because we are not only talking about specific services,” Balakrishnan said echoing Abdullah’s sentiments. “We are also talking about people’s opinions, people’s long-held beliefs which have to be challenged. This involves multiple stakeholders including community leaders, religious leaders, etc. It is not as much a challenge as it is a complicated scenario.”
Bernice Rumala, Communication and Resource Mobilization for the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, emphasized how culturally deep this issue is.
“Right now we are hoping that through this awareness campaign, to create a change in the mindset and then once there’s that change, more solidified benchmarks can be created. It’s an intergenerational path that needs to be taken in changing the mindset,” Rumala told Rudaw.
There has been some resistance to the campaign in the community, Zangana reported. “Some of the people are not with the campaign,” she said. “Even the girls don’t have awareness of this issue.”
According to Zangana, other challenges include religion’s role in traditional marriage despite governmental policies.
“Another challenge is the procedure of marriage,” she said. “We have a law that does not allow marriage under 18, but they marry with the mullah instead.”
When this occurs there is meant to be a government issued punishment; however too often the punishment is not enforced in an apparent power struggle between the government and religious authorities.
Jaafari law, which the central government in Baghdad wanted to introduce in 2013, encourages child marriage, Zangana noted.
Baghdad’s draft law “stipulates that Iraqi Shiites would refer to Islamic Sharia, and specifically principles of Jaafari jurisprudence, for personal status issues — which include marriage and divorce, as well as issues of inheritance and adoption,” Al-Monitor reported.
According to Zangana, the law would have allowed girls to marry as young as 7. The law did not take hold after facing strong objection from NGO’s and international organizations. Though, at that time, the Iraqi Minister of Justice in Baghdad sided with those who advocated for the law.