An Arab couple from one of the weddings counted at Arbat camp; the bride and groom are not underage. (photo: هيمن حسن )
Recently Iman Daoud got married. She and her husband, who is one year older than her, now live together in their own tent in the Ashti camp for internally displaced Iraqis near the northern city of Sulaymaniyah. Their only furniture is a bed and some blankets.
And although the couple say they are happy with their eight-month-old marriage, there seem to be some problems. “Being a girl causes problems,” Daoud concedes, before eventually admitting that she doesn’t really like her new husband very much. “Girls have to get married while men have more choices.”
This may be because of the age of the new couple. Daoud is 14, her husband is 15 and they are one among many young, married couples in the camps in northern Iraq.
The marriages violate Iraqi law but we cannot stop them because they are never officially registered.
Researchers from the University of Sulaymaniyah, working together with the Civil Development Organization, compiled a report on the frequency of so-called early marriages in the Ashti and Arbat camps. Early marriages are defined as couples where one or both partners is under 18 years of age. Many involve two teenagers, some involve younger girls marrying older men and very rarely, older women marry boys under 18.
Although there were two cases of children as young as ten being married, most of the weddings were between individuals aged between 13 and 16.
The report, released in January 2017 and focusing on 2,143 individuals over two years, found that around 38 percent of all the marriages recorded in the camps were early marriages. In the nearby Arbat camp, there were 143 “normal” marriages and 85 early marriages. However in the Ashti camp, there were 197 normal marriages and 718 incidents of early marriage. This is likely because the Ashti camp is mostly home to people belonging to the Yazidi ethno-religious group, who are proponents of early marriage.
Additionally some of the early marriages were cases of polygamy, with girls under 18 becoming second or third wives.
In fact, according to Hayto Murad, the spiritual leader of the Yazidi people in the Ashti camp, there were far more early marriages before the Yazidi families were displaced by attacks on their towns by the extremist group known as the Islamic State. The lack of housing and the poor economic situation among the displaced means fewer people want to marry now.
“Early marriage is an established tradition [among the Yazidi people] and it has been practiced since ancient times,” Murad told NIQASH. “It is good because couples walk the path of life together and have many children. This tradition is followed in other Kurdish cities too,” Murad noted, adding, somewhat ingenuously, that it was a tradition that had not caused any problems so far.
Murad says that divorce rates among the Yazidi couples are very low and that if a couple do have problems, he or other religious or community leaders will often intervene to counsel them.
On the other hand, it is well known that the Yazidi community is a closed one – the group are considered to be close to the Kurdish ethnically but practice a religion that is secretive; only Yazidis may know about the rituals and prayers involved. This makes it very difficult for a woman to obtain a divorce or to separate from her husband, even if she wants to.
Most of the marriage contracts are concluded by Yazidi or Arab clerics in the camps. They are not officially registered because early marriages are against the law. In Iraq the law on this comes under the country’s Personal Status Law and says that both parties should be at least 18 years of age. A judge can authorise the marriage of an individual who is aged between 15 and 18 too, under certain conditions. And on the whole, while forced marriage is not explicitly banned, Iraqi law also says that individuals cannot be made to marry without their permission. Any such marriage would be considered a forced one – unless it has been consummated.
The families arranging early marriages are the same families who have always done this, says Payam Salam Hama Sharif, the director of the Ashti camp. They are just doing the same thing they did before they were forced out of their hometowns, he adds.
“There are many early marriages in the camps but the percentage went down as a result of the economic conditions,” Sharif told NIQASH. “The marriages are a violation of Iraqi law but we cannot stop them because they are never officially registered.”
“We know that there a lot of problems because of the early marriages,” says Ashan Raouf, who works for the Civil Development Organization, which helped organize the study of early marriages in the two camps. “We have been trying to stop these marriages over the last two years but people are reluctant to abandon their traditions. Often the marriages are made so that young people can satisfy their sexual and emotional desires - but then they only stay together a short time and they often end in divorce.”
At the moment there are around 42 divorced couples in the camp Raouf notes.
“Early marriages cause psychological and social problems,” she continues, because the teenagers are not ready for married life. “The young couples start to hate one another and some of them hurt themselves or each other, and in the worst cases, there are suicides.”