The Forgotten Women and Children of Iraq

She found out about the devastating consequences for her and her daughter only after her husband’s death. As with many Iraqi couples, she and her husband had been married by a religious cleric and their marriage had never been registered with the Iraqi civil authorities. 

With no official proof of marriage, both mother and daughter were left ineligible for basic state assistance. Their story is not unique. Iraqi law does not recognise a marriage if it is not registered by the courts. 

As marriage registration entitles the couple and subsequent children to basic state assistance 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 afforded to women in registered marriages, including access to state obstetric care and to give birth in hospitals. 

Consequently, many children born into unregistered marriages are born outside of state hospitals and they are frequently without official identity documents, leaving them ineligible for state support including access to education, healthcare and to rations. 

Of concern is that unregistered marriages are a growing phenomenon in Iraq. With the breakdown in government administrative structure following the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, people have turned increasingly to religious and community leaders for order. 

Growing local authority means that marriage by verbal contract in front of a religious leader remains common and socially accepted. In some rural areas, approximately 60% of marriages go unregistered and, consequently, an equally significant number of births. 

Unregistered marriages are most prevalent in areas of high poverty, illiteracy and gender inequality. Practical challenges, such as possessing the necessary identity documents, costs and security fears, are often coupled with a deep distrust of the Iraqi government and a belief that marriage registration is subordination of a man’s familial authority to the government. 

The Iraqi government and international community must work to address these challenges, focusing efforts on a national awareness-raising campaign and greater laws protecting children’s rights to basic state support, regardless of identity documents. 

While these laws have profound consequences for individuals and their families, they also pose a serious challenge to the whole country. By leaving a significant portion of the Iraqi population without state protection, these laws are another destabilising factor in an already unstable country and region. 

This should be of concern to the international community. 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’. This would be a serious mistake. Daesh and likeminded groups feed off of disaffection. 

The increasing number of Iraqi children without identity documents and access to basic services provides a new pool of potential recruits for extremist organisations which promise what has been denied by the Iraqi government: access to basic support and - not least of all - a sense of belonging. 

Addressing the challenges of unregistered marriages is pragmatic both from a human rights perspective and a security perspective. The Paris attacks have reminded us that our fates are deeply intertwined with 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 have implications far beyond Iraq’s borders. 

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. She is also a contributor at the Project for Study of the 21st Century

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