Protecting women’s rights in Iraq affects the whole population

What Iraq needs is a state-driven campaign that raise awareness and legislation that protects and encourages greater participation of women in the workforce.
Sunday 10/03/2019
Young Iraqi women browse titles on display at a book festival in the northern city of Mosul, last September. (AFP)
Young Iraqi women browse titles on display at a book festival in the northern city of Mosul, last September. (AFP)

Making sure that the rights of women and girls in Iraq are protected does not affect that segment of society only but, rather, the entire population.

Marriage patterns and Iraq’s explosive population boom are refocusing the debate about fertility and marriage as the country sinks beneath the weight of its financial debts.

An article published by the Financial Times depicts an already struggling society whose latest baby boom is expected to invite greater economic hardships into the lives of struggling classes.

The most alarming realisation, the Financial Times revealed, was the steady growth of population at the rate of 1 million people per year, bringing the total of Iraqis born after 2003 to almost 40% of the population. Similarly, the unemployment rate is also 40%.

Baby wards, whether in Mosul or in Baghdad, are saturated with young women and teens. One of the maternity wards in West Mosul was renamed by its staff “the baby factory” — delivering an average of 20-30 babies a day, the Financial Times said.

It seems that Iraqi females are marrying younger than ever before, some of whom are yet to pass through adolescence.

Baghdad lawyer Ahmed al-Jabbouri warned that those marriages were not approved by Iraqi courts. “Child marriage is a model most prevalent in rural areas” he said, where rates of literacy and poverty exceed those in urban areas.

Attempts to normalise child marriage in Iraq by political factions trying to replace Iraq’s secular marriage laws with religious ones were quashed by civil rights and women’s activists.

Concerned public members, commentators and female activists have raised questions concerning the well-being of child brides and the future consequences their decisions may have. Others limited their attention to government-led efforts to legalise the marriage of children as young as 9 years.

Growth rates in the country depend largely on oil production and while the outlook for Iraq is promising — 6.2% growth — any increase in oil income will do little to reverse the strains associated with expanding populations. Existing services barely respond to the needs of Iraq’s current population, never mind future, much larger, generations.

The population boom Iraq is undergoing is the result of a combination of factors. Cultural, educational and migration shifts have led more women down the path to early marriages against the backdrop of exceedingly high unemployment.

The legal minimum age for marriage, set by Iraq’s Law of Personal Status, is 18 but violators are rarely sanctioned or held to account.

The bigger problem seems to be the status of women in society. They are marginalised in the workforce, immobilised by security risks and tribal and patriarchal norms and noticeably excluded from public life.

Cycles of war and conflict reinforced traditions and customs that discriminate against the female citizen, although in the past Iraqi women enjoyed far more civil liberties. Poor education has not helped the plight of women and is often cited as a primary driver behind child marriage.

“The migration of families from rural towns and villages into urban hubs like Baghdad have introduced new behaviours that combined with high levels of illiteracy threaten the nation as a whole,” a resident of the capital’s Karrada district said.

Like running a start-up, raising children requires financial backing, a luxury that not all families have. In Egypt, where similar problems of unemployment and high fertility plague the country, state-backed advertising on television advises women and men alike against the ills of a decision so economically fatal. Unlike Egypt, advertising in the Iraqi context is absent.

What the country needs is a state-driven campaign that raises awareness and legislation that protects and encourages greater participation of women in the workforce.