Children in Iraq could be legally married before the age of nine under sweeping legislation tabled on Tuesday that introduces new religious restrictions on women's rights.
As almost its last act before elections at the end of the month, the Iraqi parliament looks likely to pass new marital rules for its majority Shia community with a draft law criticised by human rights activists as "legalised inquality"
The legislation has been approved by the governing coalition in an effort to attract support from Shia Muslims in the April 30 vote.
Current Iraqi law sets the legal age for marriage at 18 without parental approval and states girls as young as 15 can be married only with a guardian's approval. It does not allow for special provisions according to sect.
But the legislation, known as the Jaafari law, introduces rules almost identical to those of neighbouring Iran, a Shia-dominated Islamic theocracy.
Ayad Allawi, a former Iraqi prime minister, warned on Tuesday that approval of the law would lead to the abuse of women. "It allows for girls to be married from nine years of age and even younger," he said. "There are other injustices [contained in it] too."
While there is no set minimum age for marriage, the section on divorce includes rules for divorces of girls who have reached the age of 9 years.
Marital rape is condoned by a clause that states women must comply with their husband's sexual demands. Men are given guardianship rights over women and the law also establishes rules governing polygamous relationships.
Hanaa Edwar, a well-known activist and head of the charity Al-Amal ("Hope" in Arabic), has campaigned against the law as a setback for women's rights in a country that has struggled since the 2003 invasion.
"It turns women into tools for sexual enjoyment," she said. "It deletes all their rights."
Human Rights Watch, the US-based organisation, has issued a plea for the Iraqi government to abandon the legislations.
"Iraq is in conflict and undergoing a breakdown of the rule of law," Basma al-Khateeb, a women's rights activist, said in a Human Rights Watch report. "The passage of the Jaafari law sets the ground for legalised inequality."
Supporters of the draft, named after a Shiite Muslim school of jurisprudence, say it simply regulates practices already existing in day-to-day life. Officials said there has been a surge in under 18s being married off since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
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