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Somalia’s parliament has sparked outrage by replacing long-awaited legislation to protect women and girls from violence with a new bill permitting child and forced marriage.

The east African nation has high rates of child marriage and violence against women, including rape and female genital mutilation (FGM). The United Nations says 45% of women are married before 18, while 98% have undergone FGM.

In 2018, Somalia’s cabinet approved the landmark Sexual Offences bill aimed at criminalising a wide range of forms of gender-based violence including rape, child marriage and sex trafficking.

The bill sets out clear duties for police, investigators and prosecutors and provides specific protections for vulnerable groups such as children, people with disabilities and internally displaced people.

It had been pending before the lower house of parliament for over two years until Saturday, when a new bill, the Sexual Intercourse bill, which allows for girls who reach puberty to be married, was introduced before legislators.

“This bill is about discussion. Every MP has his/her own saying on it. We want it passed after discussion,” Abdiwali Sheikh Ibrahim, deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Ibrahim did not comment on why the new bill was drafted, but said it was a move taken by the ministries of justice, women and human development in consultation with Islamic scholars.

Ari Gaitanis, spokesman for the U.N. mission in Somalia (UNSOM), said it would be a “step backwards” for the rights of women and girls in Somalia. UNSOM has expressed its concern to the parliament speaker, he said.

“This proposed new bill, the Law on Sexual Intercourse Related Crimes, is deeply flawed and in serious breach of international standards,” Gaitanis said in a statement emailed to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“The original Sexual Offences bill, which the U.N. and so many others are calling for to be reintroduced, is a comprehensive bill which is more in conformity with internationally accepted standards.”

International donors to Somalia also expressed concerns. Ben Fender, Britain’s ambassador to Somalia, tweeted this was “a big moment for MPs to decide Somalia’s future values.”

“Govt submitted a modern Sexual Offences bill after consulting imams, scholars. Never debated. New draft allows marriage at puberty + says a forced marriage is one where the family (not individual) doesn’t consent.”

More than 16,000 people have signed an online petition calling on the Somali parliament to throw out the Sexual Intercourse bill and pass the Sexual Offences bill.

“We are deeply concerned with the amended Sexual Offences Bill as it sets a dangerous precedent in a country already marred by gender-based sexual violence,” said petitioner Jabril Mohamed.

“This amended bill is harmful in nature to all Somalis but especially to women, girls and children as it does not protect from child marriage, forced marriage, rape and other forms of sexual abuse.”

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