The forgotten women and children of Iraq

Lost women and children 2015-11-30

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Caitlin Vito currently works at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and has also held positions with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Her research focuses on migration.

The devastating consequences of unregistered marriages for Iraqi women and children are leaving many Iraqis without basic state protection. The potential security implications reach far beyond Iraq’s borders.

It was only after her husband’s death that she found out about the devastating consequences for her and her daughter. The 25 year-old woman and her husband had been married by a religious cleric – as is the case for many couples in Iraq – and their religious marriage had never subsequently been registered with the Iraqi civil authorities. In the aftermath of his death, the young widow could neither find the marriage contract that her husband had kept with him, nor the cleric who had conducted the ceremony. Without their marriage registered in an Iraqi court, and with no alternative proof of marriage, the young mother and her daughter were both left ineligible for basic state assistance, such as health care and education. Their story is not unique.

Iraqi law does not recognise a marriage if it is not registered by the courts and couples who are only married by religious clerics are still single under the law.  Registration of marriage provides a couple with a legal marriage certificate and marital identity papers, entitling the man and wife and any subsequent children to basic state assistance and civic rights. Women in unregistered marriages are left in legal limbo and are extremely vulnerable should their husbands pass away or abandon them. In such cases they are denied the state protection and support afforded to women in registered marriages.

As marriage certificates are required for women to receive obstetric care and to give birth in a hospital, many children born into unregistered marriages are not born in state hospitals. Consequently, often these children are without state birth certificates and thus do not have formal identity documents. Oumayma Omar, a commentator on the Middle East, notes the continued disenfranchisement as these children grow-up since they are denied the most basic of state assistance, ranging from education and access to rations as well as to healthcare. This lack of protection under Iraqi law, a report by the US Agency for International Development Aid (USAID) concludes, makes women and their children the “primary and most vulnerable victims of unregistered marriages”. While under certain circumstances it is possible to petition for a marriage certificate to legally prove a marriage, the requirements are frequently unobtainable, especially for the poor and uneducated.

Of concern is that unregistered marriages are a growing phenomenon in Iraq. With the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 and the breakdown in the administrative structure, people have turned increasingly to religious and community leaders for order. The 2014 USAID report highlights that growing religious authority at the local level means that marriage by verbal contract in front of a religious or tribal authority remains the most common and socially accepted type of marriage for Iraqi families.

Another contributing factor to the rise in unregistered marriages is the increasing frequency of cases where one or both of the spouses are underage. More often than not, this is true for the girl. With the legal age for marriage in Iraq 18 years old, not registering a marriage is a way to get around the law. Underage marriage is a growing problem in the country. Most notably in the poorer areas, insecurity and poverty are leading families to marry off their daughters before the legal age, hoping to secure the girl’s future and to relieve the financial burden on the family.

In some rural areas, approximately 60% of marriages go unregistered by Iraqi courts. Consequently, there are a significant number of births that are not registered with state authorities. While accurate numbers of unregistered marriages and births are extremely difficult to determine, local civil society groups have raised alarm bells over the steady increase since 2003. Statistics vary depending on the region and between rural and urban areas; however, unregistered marriages are consistently most prevalent in areas of high poverty, illiteracy and gender inequality.

Unregistered marriages are most concentrated in these areas as requirements for obtaining a marriage registration prove frequently out of reach for the poor and illiterate. Obligatory medical examinations and identity documents, with their associated costs, as well as the requirement for two approved witnesses, all pose barriers to obtaining marriage registration for many. Couples may not be able to attend the court if they live in remote areas and are not able to afford the transportation costs. Security issues often prevent people from traveling to the more urban areas where courts are located. These practical challenges are often coupled with a deep distrust of the Iraqi government as well as local beliefs that see formal marriage registration as subordination to the government, which constitutes an affront to a man’s authority over his family.

Addressing the challenge that marriage registration laws pose to Iraqi society requires action from the government as well as from the international community. Harsher penalties are needed for those who officiate unregistered marriages as some religious clerics make a business out of the practice, capitalising on the misconception that religious marriages are legally accepted and do not require court registration. Any punitive action should also be coupled with a strong national awareness-raising campaign, specifically targeting poorer regions. Distrust of government and foreign officials means that such campaigns must be carried out by local, trusted groups.  Literacy promotion will also play a role in reducing the frequency of unregistered marriages, especially given the correlation between the practice and illiteracy rates.

At the same time, laws protecting children’s fundamental right to education, regardless of gender, economic status or identity documents, must be strengthened. Laws governing citizenship and birth registration should also be assessed to identify entry points to ensure that children of unregistered marriages have the right to Iraqi citizenship and the associated legal documents. The Iraqi government must continue to be lobbied to reform laws, policies and procedures associated with citizenship and identity documents. At the international level, the global community can support reform efforts as well as provide backing to Iraqi civil society groups campaigning for greater protection for women in unregistered unions and their children.

While these laws have profound consequences for individuals and their families, on a broader level, they also pose a serious challenge to the country as a whole. Widely practiced in Iraq, the consequences of unregistered marriages reach deep into the fabric of society, further disenfranchising already vulnerable groups. By leaving a significant portion of the Iraqi population without any basic state protection, these laws risk serving as another destabilising factor in an already unstable country and region.

Beyond Iraq, the consequences of unregistered marriages should be of concern to the international community. In the current security environment, and with the influence of Daesh felt throughout and far beyond the region, it is tempting to focus solely on the so-called hard security concerns and for attention to be diverted from ‘soft issues’ and the  disenfranchisement of those most vulnerable.

This would be a serious mistake. Daesh and like minded groups feed off of disaffection.  The increasing number of children growing up in Iraq with no formal identity documents, education or access to basic services provides a new pool of potential recruits for extremist organisations which promise what has been denied to these people by the Iraqi government: access to basic support and – not least of all – a sense of belonging and identity.

Addressing the challenges and consequences of unregistered marriages is pragmatic both from a human rights perspective and a security perspective. The Paris attacks have again, with horrifying clarity, demonstrated that our fates are deeply intertwined with those of the people of Iraq and the wider Middle East. We must have the foresight to recognise that the profound consequences of unregistered marriages on Iraqis will have implications far beyond Iraq’s borders. This should be of concern to us all.

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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