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Iraqi media must break its silence on child marriage

This blog was originally posted on World Pulse, a media network powered by women from 190 countries that lifts and unites women’s voices to accelerate their impact for the world. World Pulse is a member of Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage.

Thirteen year old Hanar, used to play hopscotch with her friends on the street near my house. Then, suddenly, I was invited to Hanar’s wedding. Now she has stopped going to school and is looking after her ‘family’.

Child marriages persist in Iraqi-Kurdistan despite legislation

The legal age of marriage in Iraqi-Kurdistan is 18 years. Yet, thirteen year-old girls are being forced into marriage by their families.

Child marriage is a serious problem in the region. The law is being violated on a regular basis. The future of thousands of little girls is being snatched away. You would think that the local media would be full of stories reporting these crimes. That’s not true. A look at the frequency of coverage shows media apathy towards this issue. The latest article in Kurdish media condemning child marriage was published in July 2013. The one before that was in August 2009.

Ms Chiman Chato, from People Development Organization in Kurdistan explains the problem: “Child marriage is not considered a priority, that is why you don’t read about it.” Ms Chato has been working on women’s issues, including child marriage, for the last five years. A lack of media coverage is one of the many hurdles faced by activists like her.

Journalists could play a crucial role in supporting efforts to end child marriage

More people need to know that child marriage is a problem in our society. By giving it frequent coverage, the media can help get the much-required attention to this issue.

Admittedly, getting the statistics and figures related to child marriage in the region is a tough. When activists like Ms Chato try to access them, they are threatened and told to stay away. If there was enough media coverage to begin with, numbers would have been public knowledge. The issue would have been established in the public domain, making it easier for activists to talk about reform.

The consequences of child marriage are so serious and so numerous that they could be an article on its own. Girls who get married at the age of 13 or 15 are at risk of childbirth death five-times higher than those who marry in their 20s. Child marriage impacts the entire reproductive health of girls. And let’s not forget the risk of domestic violence and abuse little girls may face. There is a reluctance to talk about these issues. Discussions in the media will help break the ice.

Child marriage, like security and the economy, should be important for Iraq’s development

There’s lots of coverage in the media of issues of war and economy. Of course these are more important in a developing region like ours but development is not just economic. The United Nations Human Development Index uses criteria like health, education, and infant mortality to rank countries. In a list of 187 countries, Iraq sits at 131.

To improve its ranking Iraq will have to address social issues, like child marriage. This makes the issue as newsworthy as issues of economy and war.

A lot will change with more media coverage alone, but the media can also go beyond that. For instance, media organizations in Malaysia and Bangladesh have held conferences to discuss the impact of child marriage in their country. More media space is being given to the issue to raise awareness. In India, the media has increasingly focused on the solutions to child marriage.

Media in Kurdistan can start by reporting violations of the legal age of marriage. It can question the government and publicise the message of organizations that are demanding strict enforcement of the law. The local media can run stories to create awareness about the dangers of child marriage.

I was shocked when Ms Chato told me that apparently ending someone’s childhood or putting lives at risk in childbirth is not a priority in a developing region. This needs to change. We have to start talking about the thirteen year olds who are dying during childbirth, about how our region is ignoring its future by not educating girls. Hanar can’t go back to school, but we can strive to give her daughters the future that was taken away from her.