A law currently being debated in Iraq could allow girls as young as nine to be given over by their fathers for marriage to much older husbands.
The law is known as the Jaafari Personal Status Law, according to the Associated Press. It is named after a prominent Shiite imam named Jaafar al-Sadiq and is based on the principles of his school of religious law.
Joe Stork, a director at Human Rights Watch, said that passage of the law “would be a disastrous and discriminatory step backward for Iraq’s women and girls.”
Many within Iraq agree.
"That law represents a crime against humanity and childhood," prominent Iraqi human rights activist Hana Adwar said recently. "Married underage girls are subjected to physical and psychological suffering.”
Other activists worry that, apart from being disastrous for young girls, the law will only apply to members of Iraq’s Shiite majority. That group was largely oppressed during the years of Saddam Hussein’s rule and proposal of the law by a prominent Shiite cleric is regarded as backlash to that oppression.
Opponents fear that uneven application of the law will only lead to sectarian violence, according to a recent NPR story.
"This, of course, nurtures sectarianism and divisions in society," said Fawzia al-Babakhan, an Iraqi lawyer who opposes the rule.
The ongoing violence in the country has left deep divides within Iraqi society since the ouster of Saddam Hussein by U.S. forces in 2003. The instability in Iraq has also left many destitute.
Ahlam al-Obeidi, a radio show host in Baghdad, said she fears that if the law is passed fathers will be allowed to marry off young daughters just to gain money from a dowry.
“This is not marriage," she said, "but rather the selling and buying of young women.”
Most analysts believe the law won’t be passed and that its proposal is merely a political move to bolster support among the conservative Shiite population.
It must be approved by the Iraqi parliament before it takes effect. That won’t happen until Iraq forms a new government, something that is likely months away. The country held elections for the new government last month but results have not yet been announced.