The tragedy of poverty and ignorance is embodied by the ugly case of the 13-year old Yemeni child Elham who died three days after her marriage to a man many years older than her. He treated her harshly and stole her innocence and childhood from her which is a vital time for character building for any human being.
Elham’s tragedy is an outrageous violation of what humanity at large has unanimously agreed upon – regardless of religion or culture – with regards to children’s rights to care, education, and protection against violence, until they reach an age when they are physically and intellectually independent, which is usually the period following adolescence.
Most countries in the world – regardless of their different ideologies – recognize a set minimum age for marriage, which is usually set between 16 and 18 years old. This is in order to protect children and teenagers from the transgressions of some families or the misconceptions of some societies, which is something that in most cases causes harm to [young] girls, rather than boys.
Yemen is no exception in this regard and there is a Personal Status Law that sets the minimum age for marriage at 17, however like many other developing societies that suffer from high rates of poverty and illiteracy and ignorance there is a difference between the existence of legislation and its application on the ground. This is because any law requires social cooperation in order for it to be enforced, and no government or agency can enter every house in order to ensure that this law is being implemented, especially if there is a culture that goes against this law. Therefore this is a phenomenon that exists in the poorest regions in many countries around the world.
If we are being realistic about underage marriage in Yemen, the case of the child bride Elham which ended so tragically was not the first nor will it be the last such case. There was also the case of 10-year old Nujood [Ali] who received international acclaim and awards after succeeding in obtaining a divorce. Yemeni statistics reveal that there is a high rate of underage marriage, especially in poor rural areas, largely due to economic reasons.
This problem will not disappear overnight through oversight or executive legislation, and there are many methods to circumvent Personal Status Law so long as families consent to this. It is important that a law is applied to cases that are brought to the attention of the government; however it is also important to raise the cultural and religious awareness against underage marriage.
What is strange in the case of Yemen, and this is something that is present in other Arab countries, is the position taken by some extremist trends who utilize religion in their political activity and who reject the setting of a legal minimum age for marriage, or to be more explicit, child marriage. This extremist trend organized demonstrations outside of Yemen’s parliament protesting the setting of legal minimum age for marriage as being against Islamic Shariaa law, demanding a review of the Personal Status Law and the elimination of the [legal] article [with regards to a legal minimum age].
It is likely that this [extremist] trend will be quiet for a time following the tragedy of child bride Elham, before retuning once again to put forward its agenda and claim that this law is derived from the western viewpoint and is evil and imperialistic and other similar terms that it will utilize to object to the setting of a legal minimum age for marriage.
The question that must be asked to the figures and leaders of this [extremist] trend who are mostly well-off is; would you accept this for your daughters? Or is the issue one of spreading poverty and promoting ignorance in order to better serve your agenda?