The White Ribbon Campaign to End Violence against Women – organised by Women for Peace in collaboration with the international non-profit organization Oxfam – concluded last week in Baghdad.
The campaign, which aimed to both prevent violence against women and discourage the practice of early marriage, ran from November 25th to December 10th, and was based at the Baghdad Cultural Centre.
"The objective of the campaign is to involve men in opposing any form of violence practiced against women, including early marriage, which deprives society of women's contributions to all parts of life," said Shatha Naji, president of the Women for Peace civil society organisation.
"It is our opinion that the marriage of girls who are below 15 years of age is one of the main reasons for divorce," Naji told Mawtani, describing early marriage as "a serious practice that threatens society".
"Early marriage can result in serious problems that affect the woman, and it can be listed under the category of violence against women," said campaign spokeswoman Hiyam Tawfiq.
In addition to research and studies that show early marriage is one of the main causes of divorce, this practice also "can turn a girl into a widow, because some girls are married off to elderly men," Tawfiq told Mawtani.
Campaign organisers sent a proposal to parliament that would set a penalty for anyone breaching the 1959 Iraq Law of Personal Status, which states that no girl below the age of 15 is allowed to marry, she said. The law sets 18 as the legal marriage age, with marriage after the age of 15 permitted with the approval of a guardian and in cases the judge considers an "urgent necessity". The penalty would apply to the girl's father, brother or husband, as well as to the sheikh responsible for conducting the marriage outside the court.
The White Ribbon Campaign used a variety of approaches to draw attention to the issue and promote peaceful strategies, Tawfiq said.
Campaign activities included an interactive play and numerous television and radio interviews. Campaign staff also met with academic figures, members of parliament, poets, authors, religious leaders, tribal sheikhs, and politicians in order to deliver their message.
"In this campaign, we focused on the popular and the official sides, as we tried to raise awareness among ordinary citizens on the dangers of such marriages," she said
"We have been working on this issue for a year and a half in the outlying areas of Baghdad," she added. "Often, we find cases of divorced women who are not more than 15 years old, and some of them are even mothers."
"The Phoenix Bird", a documentary film about early marriage, was shown repeatedly during the campaign, she said, "so that everyone, men and women, will understand the extent of damage of such a marriage."
Women's activist Raja al-Obaidi said recent educational campaigns on preventing violence against women have "witnessed considerable progress and noticeable success".
"The White Ribbon Campaign complemented many of these previous widely spread campaigns," she told Mawtani.
"The lives of a large number of young girls were saved by the change in traditions, often inherited and practised by parents," she said.
After taking part in educational campaigns, "many men admitted they made a mistake in thinking that early marriage was in the best interest of the girl," she said.
Psychologist and human rights activist Ahmad Hassan al-Rubaie told Mawtani, "The main reason behind the practice of early marriage is the inherited traditions inside [many] rural communities of the fear of disgrace that a girl might bring to her family, in addition to poverty."
"This leads to incompatibility in a marriage, because the husband could be four or five decades older than the girl, or he might be infertile or disabled, and such a marriage could unsettle a young girl, resulting in psychological problems," al-Rubaie said.
Sheikh Fadhel al-Maamoury, tribal head of his village on the edge of Baghdad, said the campaign has changed the convictions of many in his community.
Al-Maamoury told Mawtani, "It is common amongst us as a rural community to marry off the girl while she is young."
"In reality, many problems result from such marriage, and that is common here too," he added. "But the nature and traditions of rural people dictate to the wife that she must obey her parents and her husband."
"A number of dialogue sessions led by supporters of women issues were held at our village, and almost everyone became convinced that marrying off a girl at an early age could lead to much harm that outweighs the positive aspects that we as a rural community believe in," al-Maamoury said.
"I have taken it upon myself to block any incompatible, or below the legal age, marriage, as well as prevent any violence against women," he said.