Baghdad - A contentious draft law being considered in Iraq could open the door to girls as young as nine getting married.
The law would also require wives to submit to sex on their husband's whim, provoking outrage from rights activists and many Iraqis who see it as a step backward for women's rights.
The measure, aimed at creating different laws for Iraq's majority Shi’ite population, could further fray the country's divisions amid some of the worst bloodshed since the sectarian fighting that nearly ripped the country apart after the US-led invasion.
It also comes as more and more children under 18 get married in the country.
"That law represents a crime against humanity and childhood", prominent Iraqi human rights activist Hana Adwar told The Associated Press.
"Married underage girls are subjected to physical and psychological suffering.”
Iraqi law now sets the legal age for marriage at 18 without parental approval. Girls as young as 15 can be married only with a guardian's approval.
The proposed new measure, known as the Jaafari Personal Status Law, is based on the principles of a Shi’ite school of religious law founded by Jaafar al-Sadiq, the sixth Shi’ite imam.
Iraq's justice ministry late last year introduced the draft measure to the cabinet, which approved it last month despite strong opposition by rights groups and activists.
The draft law does not set a minimum age for marriage. Instead, it mentions an age in a section on divorce, setting rules for divorces of girls who have reached the age of 9 years in the lunar Islamic calendar.
Since the Islamic calendar year is 10 or 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar, which would be the equivalent of 8 years and 8 months old. The bill makes the father the only parent with the right to accept or refuse the marriage proposal.
Critics of the bill believe that its authors slipped the age into the divorce section as a backhanded way to allow marriages of girls that young. Already, government statistics show that nearly 25% of marriages in Iraq involved someone under the age of 18 in 2011, up from 21% in 2001 and 15% in 1997.
Planning ministry spokesperson Abdul-Zahra Hendawi said the practice of underage marriage is particularly prevalent in rural areas and some provinces where illiteracy is high.
Also under the proposed measure, a husband can have sex with his wife regardless of her consent. The bill also prevents women from leaving the house without their husband's permission, would restrict women's rights in matters of parental custody after divorce and make it easier for men to take multiple wives.
Parliament must still ratify the bill before it becomes law. That is unlikely to happen before parliamentary elections scheduled for 30 April, though the cabinet support suggests it remains a priority for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's administration.
Al-Maliki is widely expected to seek a third term.
Baghdad-based analyst Hadi Jalo suggested that election campaigning might be behind the proposal.
Iraqi Justice Minister Hassan al-Shimmari, a Shi’ite, has brushed off the criticism of the bill. His office introduced a companion bill that calls for the establishment of special Shi’ite courts that would be tied to the sect's religious leadership.
Al-Shimmari insists that the bill is designed to end injustices faced by Iraqi women in past decades, and that it could help prevent illicit child marriage outside established legal systems.
"By introducing this draft law, we want to limit or prevent such practices", al-Shimmari said.
But Sunni female lawmaker Likaa Wardi believes it violates women's and children's rights and creates divisions in society.