Forced Marriage Overseas: Iraq

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Individuals from the United States may face serious challenges if trying to avoid and/or escape forced marriages in Iraq. While laws offer certain protection for women and girls, continued conflict and terrorism in country has only increased the risk of gender-based violence. Forced and child marriage, honor violence, rape, and domestic abuse are widespread, with particularly high levels of violence occurring in areas controlled by the insurgent ISIS terrorist organization.

For further information and guidance for individuals from the U.S. that are facing or fleeing a forced marriage in Iraq, please contact the Forced Marriage Initiative.

Marriage in Iraq

Women and girls in Iraq have a number of protections under the law when entering into or attempting to dissolve a marriage. Marriage and divorce are governed by Iraq’s Personal Status Law, which was enacted in 1959. The law set up “personal status courts” to replace existing Shari’ah law courts, and, while based on religious Islamic law, it is viewed as one of the most liberal laws for women in the Arab world.1 The law prohibits child marriage by setting the national marriage age at 18 (with marriages allowed at 15 with judicial decree), bans forced marriage (with criminal penalties for parents and other relatives involved), expanded women’s rights to access divorce and inheritance, and enabled mothers to win child custody.2

Notwithstanding these protections, forced marriages still regularly occur in Iraq. Women may be forced to marry to financially benefit their families, or in accordance with long established tribal practices, including marrying off a woman or girl to settle an inter-family or tribe feud or to facilitate another marriage arrangement desired by the men of the family.3 Female rape victims are often pressured to marry the perpetrator to maintain the family’s honor, with families sometimes requesting judicial assistance in forcing the marriage. Forced marriage laws are often not enforced, judges may neglect to ensure that a woman is freely consenting to a marriage if accompanied by her parents, and – when facing a forced marriage situation – women may be fearful of appearing in court and filing a complaint against their family members.4

Child marriage has not been criminalized in Iraq. Despite the legal age of marriage requirements, there is little effort to prevent child marriage by the Iraqi government, and a “tradition of forced marriages for girls as young as 11 years old continue[s], particularly in rural areas.”5 A study by UNICEF and the Iraqi government found that, in the year 2012, 21% of women ages 15 to 19 years old were married,6 and other reports note that rates of early marriage of girls has increased substantially over the last decade. Proposed legislation affecting Shi’a Muslims in Iraq would also severely weaken protections against child marriage, potentially legalizing marriage of girls as young as 9 and of boys as young as 15.7

Child brides in Iraq also face “forced divorce” by which the husbands of primarily young girls threaten divorce unless her family provides additional money to his family; in such cases, victims that are divorced are often forced to leave their husband’s household, and yet are unable to return to their own, leading to situations of abandonment.8 Girls, particularly those from minority communities, may be sexually exploited by temporary or “summer” marriages in which the a girl’s family receives payment from a man who can then marry the girl for a limited amount of time.9

The semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) enacted a law criminalizing child and forced marriage in 2011, noticeably declining the number of forced marriages in that region. To circumvent this law, IKR residents are traveling to other Iraqi provinces where child marriage laws are not strictly enforced.10

Potential Risks and Protections in Country

It is unlikely that women and girls facing forced marriage in Iraq will be able to easily access protection, particularly given the continued internal unrest and terrorist activity in country. Iraq continues to face politically motivated sectarian and ethnic violence, abuses by government and varied illegal armed groups, and widespread corruption.11 Since the end of the Kuwait War, there has been a growth in the power of tribal forces and fundamentalist religious groups, resulting in a loss of the recognition of equality for women.12

Domestic violence and rape remain pervasive problems, with poor response by authorities. The law criminalizes rape, but allows for charges to be dropped if the offender marries the victim. Spousal rape is not a crime. Incidents of domestic abuse are customarily addressed within the family and tribal groups, and often go unreported to and unpunished in the legal system. The sixteen Family Protection Units around the country  focus on family reconciliation instead of victim protection. Not all units are able to provide victims with legal aid or safe shelter. Women and children are at particular risk of forced marriage in the southern provinces, where they often traded to settle tribal disputes.13

In the IKR, police investigations of domestic violence have often been “sloppy and marked by a distrust of the victims.” Additionally, if victims go forward with claims of domestic violence, they generally will face “a long and painful process in which they have to submit their testimony over and over again to different people.” Women’s organizations have reported that “women are subjected to sexual abuse by the police when reporting on violence, and that judges call them prostitutes when their cases are processed in court.”14

The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq has been working specifically on assisting victims of forced marriage.15 There is also a strong NGO presence in country, with certain agencies specifically working on issues of gender-based violence, and offering counseling, legal services, shelter and other supports to victims.

The militant group ISIS, which controls a significant area of northern Iraq, has perpetuated hundreds of forced marriages and other criminal acts against women and girls, particularly targeting non-Muslim populations.16 In addition to the group’s brutal and pervasive violence against women, the internal instability caused by their activities in Iraq may hinder women and girl’s ability to access help or services.

Special Challenges in Returning to the United States

Continued internal instability may make travel throughout and exiting the country extremely challenging. Please check the entry and exit requirements for Iraq for the most up to date information.

Get Help

  • The Tahirih Justice Center Forced Marriage Initiative
    We are available to help individuals from the United States who are facing or fleeing forced marriage in Iraq, including providing phone, text, and email support, connecting with the U.S. government and local resources, and coordinating shelter and services back in the United States.
  • The U.S. State Department
    The U.S. State Department is available to assist US citizens that are victims of forced marriage with replacement of travel documents and return travel to the US. Outside of the capital city of Baghdad, the ability of the U.S. Embassy to provide consular services to U.S. citizens is particularly limited, given the lack of security within the rest of the country. For updated information and travel alerts, please visit the department’s webpage on international travel in Iraq.
  • U.S. Embassy Baghdad
    Contact the embassy in the case of an emergency.
    Tel: 0760-030-3000

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1 Heinrich Böll Foundation, Interview with Hanaa’ Edwar, Secretary General of the Iraqi Al Amal Association and Judge Salem Rawdan Al-Moussaw: Iraqi Women and the National Personal Status Law, (last visited April 1, 2014).
2 Id.; Personal Status Law, Article 9.
3 Dlovan Barwari, Iraqi Women Victimized by Tribal Marriage Customs, Al Monitor (Sep. 12, 2013), available at ?v=1362363401000?v=1362363401000#ixzz2xYV70Wp5.
4 Department of State, Iraq 2012 Human Rights Reports, available at documents/organization/204572.pdf (last visited April 4, 2014).
5 Id.
6 Id.
7 Human Rights Watch, Iraq: Don’t Legalize Marriage for 9-Year-Olds (March 12, 2014), available at 2014/03/11/iraq-don-t-legalize-marriage-9-year-olds (last visited April 4, 2014).
8 Department of State, Iraq 2012 Human Rights Report, available at documents/organization/204572.pdf (last visited April 4, 2014).
9 Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012- Executive Summary for Iraq, available at index.htm#wrapper (last visited February 2, 2014).
10 Id.
11 Id.
12 Ali Mamouri, Women’s movement in Iraq faces setbacks, Al-Monitor (March 18, 2014), available at
13 U.S. Department of State, Iraq 2012 Human Rights Report, available at documents/organization/204572.pdf (last visited April 4, 2014).
14 Annette Ulvenholm Wallqvist, Headwinds for law protecting women in Kurdistan region of Iraq,, available at (last visited April 4, 2014).
15 Wafa Project, Article 34 Governments should protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse, available at (last visited April 4, 2014).
16 Annabell Van den Berghe in Duhok, Humiliation replaces fear for the women kidnapped by Isis, The Guardian (October 19, 2014), available at
17 United States Embassy to Baghdad, Email Correspondence between researchers and Embassy Staff (January 11, 2014).